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OPINION17 July 2019

Don’t blame research for a lack of innovation

Innovations Opinion Technology UK

It’s all too easy to find fault with market research techniques for quashing innovation, but Nick Bonney argues the bigger barriers to innovation, are whether the companies can bring the new ideas to market.

Whenever research is criticised as part of the creative or innovation process the same Henry Ford quote is almost inevitably dusted off “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether Ford said it or not, it’s the get out of jail free card to either downplay findings or to avoid doing research in the first place. I’m sure I’m not the only researcher who has to restrain their eye rolling before responding that this is simply bad research; people might not be able to tell you what you want but you can understand what they need.

More recently, however, I’ve concluded that we need not be so defensive. Perhaps the challenges with innovation lie as much with organisations that often struggle to cope with left-field ideas as with consumers’ lack of foresight. For every design genius like Sir Jony Ive, there are thousands of companies that find it easier to turn their back on new ideas because they’re simply too difficult to handle within their current operating model.

This was brought into sharp focus for me last month when Amazon announced Stylesnap; its ‘Shazam’ of the fashion world. This feature allows customers to upload a photo of an item and then be directed to the most similar item from its inventory.

Surely this is the sort of ground-breaking AI-driven innovation which can only come from a self-styled user design ninja?! Except not – this exact same idea was generated by a group of students in a co-creation workshop more than 15 years ago; a time long before smartphones and when text-based WAP services were the total of the mobile internet.

I was lucky enough to spend nearly 14 years of my career working at Orange/EE, a technology company whose brand DNA was about shaping a brighter future. We invested a lot of time working with consumers to look at potential service innovations but, even then, we often struggled to know how to deal with the output.

Other services which have now launched as standalone products, such as Touchnote, Nest, Snapmap were all spontaneously generated by consumers in idea generation sessions – we just didn’t have the technology or the bandwidth to cope with them. The challenge was less whether people could generate good ideas, it was whether those ideas were appropriate for our brand at that moment in time.

The challenge of course is that, in large organisations, there are always competing priorities. Brand or product managers are understandably often too busy with near term, operational challenges to have the time, energy or head-space to drive longer term innovation through the business.

So rather than shining a light on consumers’ ability to generate new ideas, maybe we need to get our own houses in order first:

  • Does the organisation have a clear strategy behind the innovation process which sets the ‘guard rails’ you’re working within? What is the problem the business is trying to solve?
  • Is there a process to capture good ideas within the ‘corporate memory’ rather than each innovation sprint re-inventing the wheel?
  • Is there clear accountability and senior sponsorship within the organisation for nurturing these longer-term innovations?

Many companies have sought to address these challenges through the creation of standalone Ventures or Labs divisions but not every business will be blessed with the kind of organisational muscle to create these standalone units. However, without these conditions in place, it’s likely that yet again research may find itself caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

At first glance, the brief looks like the one we’ve all been crying out for – it’s long term, it’s strategic and something new! However, in practice, it could be destined to fail from the outset with ideas failing like seeds on fallow ground.

As an industry, we’ve focused on how we work in ever more creative ways with consumers to generate good ideas. Perhaps we need to re-balance the efforts to ensure we’re spending enough time partnering with our clients to help these ideas survive and thrive?

Nick Bonney is founder of Deep Blue Thinking

1 Comment

5 years ago

Hello Nick, great article, I 100% agree with you.

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