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This article was written by Matt Chanoff, Merrick Furst, Ph.D., Daniel Sabbah, Ph.D., and Mark Wegman, Ph.D., and excerpted from their book The Heart of Innovation: A Field Guide for Navigating to Authentic Demand.
The theologian Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Strip out the religious language, and this sentiment goes right to the heart of innovation – what makes people innovators and the crucial difference between innovation and invention.
We all know it isn’t just enough to invent a new product, service, or solution. The vast majority of people are indifferent to most of the new things they’re offered. True innovators don’t just invent – as their deepest gladness is to make and do things that make a difference. Innovators recognize the innovation isn’t complete if the hoped for beneficiaries are indifferent and the innovation doesn’t sell.
Innovators are inspired by a solution to what they perceive as a problem or by an opportunity. The motivation to drive it and see it through is a matter of pride, validation, and ambition. But that’s only half of the equation. Successful innovation also must connect with the deep selves, the motivations, the pride, validation, and ambition of the people for whom the innovation is intended.
Marketers do their best to pay attention to their customers’ hunger. They know that customers look for solutions. They know the framing and influencing factors that steer customers in one direction or another. But when it comes to innovation, marketers are usually too late. True innovations come at the very beginning of things. Marketers market what they’re given, or based on theories about the new product.
The same is true of most innovations that come out of innovation labs and design companies—they can be fabulous new solutions to known problems. But in those situations, the innovators start with a prompt, an idea about a need or problem, and they go to work looking for new ways to address it. But by then, assumptions about needs and problems are baked into the project and viewed through the distorted lens of an invented solution. Too often, they find themselves marketing square pegs to round holes.
The Power of Authentic Demand
Innovators can’t reach authentic demand with a clever solution to the wrong problem, and marketers can’t successfully market when the customers or clients are essentially indifferent
The opposite of indifference is authentic demand, which is what makes someone a customer.
A reliable predictor of authentic demand is a customer’s situation. To see what prospective customers will buy, it’s important to identify the behaviors they will not not do in particular situations, and what tools they reach for to accomplish those behaviors. This provides a framework for uncovering unmet authentic demands. The ability to meet the unmet authentic demands of customers in a given situation is the core value of any innovation.
Imagine a river. There’s a small town on one side of the river and a factory on the other. The people who work at the factory live in the town. At 5 p.m., the factory whistle blows, and the workers make their way home. Some go to the riverbank, where they’ve left little boats, and row home. Some walk upstream to where the river is shallow and ford their way across. A few people have invested in bigger boats, and they sell tickets to get across.
But then an innovator comes along, builds a bridge, and sets up a toll booth. Pretty soon, the factory workers get into the habit of paying the toll and walking across the bridge.
What demand looks like depends on where you sit. The bridge builder/toll taker sees overwhelming demand: every day, hordes of people head for the bridge and fill up the cash box at the toll booth. But from the customers’ point of view, there’s no intense desire or clamoring for the product. They simply find themselves in a situation where buying and using a product or service is just a thing they do as part of living their lives.
Before the innovation, the workers went about their business using boats, the shallow ford upstream, and other tools. After the bridge went up, they kept going about their business, but now the old tools seem problematic or aren’t even noticed and the only tool at hand is the bridge. The shift to using this new tool wasn’t universal and automatic. But after it occurred, going back to the old way just wasn’t an option. Using a boat would make you look and feel like an oddball. Fording now seems dangerous or unpleasant. Initially, the workers accepted their current situation, and found a way to get home. However, when the innovator offered them a solution that gave them a better grip on their normal activity of going home after work, they rapidly adopted it.
That’s authentic demand.