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Hacking & Collaborating: Disruptive Innovation through Inspiration

here are two attributes associated to MR that I feel are preventing us from making a larger contribution to innovation.

As a rule, we are:

  1. Risk adverse
  2. Process driven

The above attributes have their merits.  They allow us to provide objective, thorough analyses of potential products through measurable processes.   In contrast, consider the mindset of the product and brand team, who have a vested interest in the success of a new concept.  Their valid concern is that MR’s sole purpose is to rain on their creativity. This led one of my former NFO Research associates to dub MR as “The killing of a beautiful hypothesis.

OK, let’s zoom out and take a macro view of the product innovation pipeline.  More than any other time, companies need to feed that pipeline as customer preferences change ever more rapidly.  According to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University, the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 “has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today”.   Andy Warhol was talking about people when he said that we all have about 15 minutes of fame, but that line is beginning to sound like the lifespan of today’s corporation.  Clearly, for a corporation to buck that trend and stay relevant for decades, they have to constantly innovate.

Concept testing, with all its normative data, is best at delivering incremental change.  According to Wharton Professor Jennifer Mueller, many people have a subtle bias against innovative ideas.  Her team found that “when creative ideas were presented in an uncertain environment, the more novel ideas often got a lesser rating”.  Applying this we would expect research respondents to be more likely to recognize the benefits of incremental improvement, especially in the contextual relationship of similar concepts.  In contrast, it’s extremely unlikely that disruptive innovation will win the concept test challenge.

Our current concept testing process is sound strategy if the goal is to move your company out of the S&P 500 as quickly as possible.   We obviously need to consider alternative forms of product innovation.  After all, necessity is the mother of invention. (Don’t worry, I’m running out of metaphors, so please keep reading).

As an alternative, let’s consider two forms of disruptive innovation that share similar trajectories:

  1. Product Hacking – This new form of hacking is not done by expert computer users or digital criminals, but is in fact done by everyday people. This new terminology for hacking refers to the act of modifying or customizing everyday products to improve their functionality, repurpose them or just for fun.

EXAMPLE: Adobe Systems recently launched its Kickbox program to help drive employee innovation.  The box cover has a fire alarm image with the words “Pull in Case of Idea.” Within the box, the employee will find instruction cards, a pen, two Post-It note pads, two notebooks, a Starbucks gift card, a box of chocolate and finally, a $1,000 prepaid credit card.  According to Adobe, the Kickbox is “designed to increase innovator effectiveness, accelerate innovation velocity, and measurably improve innovation outcomes.”   How cool is that!

  1. Customer Co-Creation – Co-creation is when two or more people come together as a collaborative team, with a strong desire to create something beyond their individual capabilities, and not knowing, but fully trusting the precise outcome. In contrast to Product Hacking, folks are now working in teams, typically ideating on their own to begin and then collaborating via agile iteration towards common ground.

EXAMPLE: Delta Airlines reached out to its SkyMiles Members to redesign the advance search engine of the flight booking process.  By working in concert with several internal Delta teams via agile iteration, the passenger led innovation has led to a far more intuitive search process.

What Product Hacking & Customer Co-Creation have in common –

  • Anyone can play – Even employees!
  • Ordinary people are given “permission” to be creative
  • Both paths are based on “pull,” not “push”

In fact, I feel these iterative approaches to innovation draw inspiration from the most unlikely MR source, Steve Jobs.  Of course, Jobs famously derided MR as essentially worthless.  And I think there is truth to the idea that traditional MR is only effective in the incremental advance of current products. But that doesn’t mean creatives cannot gain inspiration from the Wisdom of Crowds if we allow “non-professionals” (A.K.A. the rank & file employee/customer) to create something new.

It’s at the raw emotive level where customers are able to design rough constructs to solve their pain points.  The themes that emerge from hacking and/or co-creating can serve as “eureka” to a talented developer.

Steve Jobs didn’t simply come down from the mountaintop with a fully functioning iPhone.  He correctly “observed” what the customer was searching for from a social/communication device and developed a product to answer that.  Of course, geniuses like Steve Jobs only come around every century, so the key to unlocking disruptive innovation at your company is via product hacking & collaborative co-creation.

The moral of the story is that there is little to be gained by applying 20th century MR techniques to the developmental needs of the 21st century.

As I write this, the industry is currently recovering from the black eye over the UK election predictions when our tried and true methods (e.g. surveys & polls) flat out failed.  At the same time, we have done a poor job of establishing a quid pro quo relationship with customers.  According to a 2014 report by Edelman, almost nine in 10 consumers want more meaningful relationships with brands, but less than one in five believe brands are delivering on that wish.

In the new collaborative economy, there is much to be gained by starting our innovation work with the customer, let them share their pain points and proposed solutions. This inspiration, dare we say foresight, becomes the spark to drive innovation.

Follow their trends, learn from their experiments, and see where they’re leading you.  And then dive in, commit resources, because that’s where you should have been yesterday.


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4 responses to “Hacking & Collaborating: Disruptive Innovation through Inspiration

  1. Good article Kevin, the Delta example is a great one many of us can emulate in our space/the BTB world, one I think is a big part of the future for the MR space.

    Having said that, I wish we in the MR world would stop continuing the myth that Steve Jobs eschewed MR. He did have that famous quote…but subsequent published materials (latest books interviewing those close to him) note he was a devout user of MR…just not in the way many would define it (i.e. Apple had user panels, advisory groups, observational research, etc.). He was quoted that it wasn’t the consumer’s job to tell him what they wanted…but wouldn’t we all agree good research isn’t asking consumers what they want…its studying their behaviors, having them articulate their feelings as to their choices, etc.

    He used many tools of MR…he just didn’t like calling it that because (I infer) he didn’t like the stereotype associated with the phrase (something ironically we’re seeing debated in groups like this…i.e. MR vs. insights…traditional vs. new methods, etc.). Dare I say…Apple was one of the leaders in DIY approaches. A whole different animal to discuss/debate, but akin to the “New Coke” myth (i.e. MR got it all wrong and thus Coke lost millions to revert back to the old formula, versus the reality that the decisions were made prior to the MR and the data was used to fit the argument vs. allowing the research to lead the decision making), I think perpetuating this myth does the industry an injustice (as well as business the injustice to conclude true innovation is the result of genius leadership vs. the maniacal passion of asking “why”?).

    IMO, we need to continually extol the virtues of MR, and as we often see debated among these circles, point out MR is evolving, new methodologies and technologies emerging, and embrace those as our own, used by such leading innovation firms as Apple (i.e. open our arms vs. close our doors). The question to me isn’t whether MR (traditional or new/emerging) is going away; rather, who in the future will lead it?

  2. Hi Brett,

    I’m in agreement with your view that Steve Jobs was in fact a damn fine observational researcher. In fact, I think he would have made a great ethnographer.

    I guess it helps to be defined as a genius if you claim a loathing for MR, while under the radar you’re using it all the time to fine tune your products. I did try to allude to that fact when I said that Steve didn’t just come down from the mountaintop with the idea for the iPhone.

    And to your point Brett, I think we researchers can learn a lot from Steve Jobs and put consumer research at the forefront of product development. Formative research is so much more fun & and exciting than validation (CYA) research.

  3. Great article! Interesting to see how technology has progressed and ideas are being ‘borrowed’ more than ever. The biggest thing to remember is the marketing and how it is used to seperate your product. Steve Jobs produced a great product, but marketed it to the world and showed how he was separate, but necessary. Fun read.

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