To Be at Zero Distance to Customers
Innovators who make our jaws drop with their brilliance are often able to see connections that others miss. They ask the right questions; are keen observers of behavior; they constantly experiment with ideas. These people actively seek the company of differently-minded individuals to expand their own knowledge.
"Great ideas might be everywhere, but one needs to know where to look"
However, what if an organization’s vision is less about producing that single outstanding innovator and more about making each and every employee a little more creative? What if they want innovation to be a routine part of every job? Is this even realistic? A number of large organizations are beginning to ask these questions. Even reasonably innovative organizations are becoming more impatient, more ambitious, with their innovation aspirations. No longer are they content with producing one big idea every few years, now it’s about innovating faster, better, everyday and everywhere.
That’s easier said than done. Great ideas might be everywhere, but one needs to know where to look. And what is being looked for. To quote the late management consultant and author Peter Drucker: “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question.”
This is the core premise of Design Thinking. It encourages questions to discover the unknown and unarticulated problems of the day. It advises practitioners to first establish the right problems, the ones that people truly desire to see resolved, and only then proceed to examine whether there’s a technically feasible and economically viable solution within reach.
Perhaps there is a way to embrace Design Thinking to get closer and closer – at zero distance, really – to the needs of the customer. Imagine a scenario where every employee at every level is trained to “design think." To use their proximity to clients to build empathy to such an extent that they can articulate problems that clients have not yet recognized. Having asked the right questions and having found the right problems, it’s on to finding the right solution. Here’s where a five-point innovation framework comes into play. It’s a simple but universal model that can be employed by everyone, in every function, within every client program. It’s grassroots innovation, and it goes something like this: Can you find the solution by looking around and learning from others? Do you need to do something that is over and above what the project asks? Does the solution call for finding ways to do the same old things better, or differently? Finally, if you’ve found the solution, have you talked about the value of the innovation to the business? Have you freely shared that knowledge so others may benefit too?
It takes only a few months for a grassroots innovation movement to yield truly powerful results. For example, an early outcome of our own zero distance program was an account manager’s idea for a next-generation commercial lending platform. Working with a global financial services provider, he saw how the company was lagging in a market rife with alternative lenders and innovative models. He assessed the client’s capabilities around commercial underwriting and garnered insights around leading industry practices. A series of workshops served to map the client’s situation in terms of capabilities, operational challenges, business risks, etc. Examples of successful innovations were shared.
This set the stage for the client to apply Design Thinking to reveal what it really expected from a future underwriting platform. After a few days of intensive effort, the participants came away with over 5,000 thoughts, a few hundred ideas, half a dozen prototypes and a set of viable ready-for-transformation business ideas, including the idea for the next-generation commercial lending platform. In just 14 weeks, one employee’s willingness to ask “what more?” moved a client from a position of uncertainty to complete clarity on how to transform into a next-generation player in the lending space.
The ethos behind this grassroots innovation movement is not complicated. Every day, no matter what the business is, clients come to us seeking solutions to a myriad of problems and with enormous expectations. They issue specific requests and outline parameters. The point is then for each individual involved to set a mission for themselves – to take all of that client direction and add one overarching mandate. To strive to bring ideas that enable clients to be more than they already are.
If every employee within the enterprise knew that the purpose of their function is to create solutions that surprise clients, solutions that could be delivered ahead of time and solutions that can deliver a “wow” factor, we would have a whole legion of innovators. We would have also answered the question – can innovation be made routine – with a resounding yes.