Promoting customer collaboration for innovation

Collaborate
Cris Beswick
Author, Speaker + Strategic Advisor on Innovation
The Future Shapers
Columnist
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“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
- Charles Darwin

On a scale of 1 to 10 how open is your business to customer collaboration? Whatever number you pick, unless your organisation is already well on its way to setting a culture of innovation at its heart, my guess would be that the truth will be somewhere further down the scale than you’d like to think.

Just as in the first article in this series when I talked about the difference between knowing your customers and really knowing your customers, so the same can be applied to collaboration and collaboration for innovation.

To recap, this series of three articles is examining the core elements of intelligence, collaboration and adaptability which sit at the heart of innovative Next Generation Organisations. In particular, we are examining the way in which these attributes can help to deliver game-changing, customer-led innovation and in turn amazing customer integration and experiences.

What are Next Generation Organisations? In our book Building a Culture of Innovation we comment that there are three types of business in this world – “those which failed to survive the recession, those which survived but have either plateaued or are in slow decline, and those which will create the future.”

It is this last group which I define as Next Generation Organisations: those companies which understand that they need to master strategic innovation in order to deliver differentiated experiences and new business models. When you deconstruct the design process into its fundamental components, you get a 3-stage framework; understanding a problem, solving the problem and implementing the solution. So, if we want our organisations to be built around this capability, our organisations need to be structured in a way that supports this approach.

A unified whole

So when I asked about collaboration I was doing so in the light of an ‘innovation culture’ and that is a very different being.

In the eyes of many individuals and businesses collaboration is simply another word for teamwork. In other words, ‘if I do this and you do that, together we will complete the task’.

This may be seen as a very efficient method of working but (and it’s a very big but) this type of task allocation is a throwback to the machine age. In its simplest form it treats people as automata, providing them with tunnel vision and task-based training. It is also protectionist, tending to see the solution as resting within the organisation and viewing suppliers and other third parties as cogs in the chain rather than valuable partners.

True innovation means bringing customers in at the beginning of the process

Collaboration for innovation is very far removed from siloed teamwork. For a start, those seeking to collaborate for innovation are not afraid to draw in anyone and everyone who can help them in their quest. This includes suppliers, research institutions, and other third parties including competitor organisations. Crucially it means collaborating with your customers too.  

So the scenario moves from us and them towards a more unified whole, working together to deliver solutions to genuine problems which add real value to the customer and drive growth for the creator.

Even within organisations the emphasis moves from task-based silos and towards holistic collaboration. Teams are no longer sector-based but instead become more fluid, with individuals stepping in and out as required to move projects forward.

Customer collaboration

When we innovate we look to deliver game-changing solutions to real customer problems; so who better to join us in identifying those problems and creating solutions than customers themselves. To be quite honest, even without the innovation imperative businesses are facing an increasing pressure from customers to be involved in the product mix.

One of the main drivers of this is Generation Z. Born around the turn of the century the inhabitants of Generation Z have never known a time without fast access to broadband and social media interaction. Reporting on this generation in 2014, pluralthinking commented that Generation Z “have never been passive recipients of brand messages, users of products or choosers of ideas. They expect to be involved in a brand’s creation and destiny.” Not only that they are socially more aware, expecting their chosen brands to demonstrate a more visible social, ethical and sustainable conscience.

With Generation Z consumers expecting to make their mark on the development and delivery of the brand and with the innovation imperative seeking to deliver solutions which add value for the customer, it is hardly surprising that customer collaboration is increasingly taking a more central role.

But what does customer collaboration really involve? Are you going to choose a random selection of consumers, bring them into the business and sit them in meetings? Well yes, you might; focus groups have always been a valuable adjunct to the design process but only if they are genuinely set up to provide open feedback rather than being seen as some type of quasi affirmation process.

It’s all very well being told that 37% of fifteen customers like this product but apart from the fact that the maths doesn’t add up, the intelligent observer sees such responses as more of a marketing exercise than a genuine attempt at collaborative development.

True innovation means bringing customers in at the beginning of the process, invite them to be open and honest about what they like and don’t like about the existing product, work with them to identify the difference between a genuine problem and a nice-to-have enhancement and you might be getting somewhere towards a focus group which can have design impact.

The key to success is to be open, to understand that collaboration is not the same as task allocation.

In the previous article in this series I commented that design thinking believes that 99% of the solution is the brief and that brief has to be founded on genuine customer understanding. I make no apology for repeating that comment here. Customer interaction and customer understanding has to come at the start of the design process or whatever product or service you end up with may well not meet any genuine need.

Focus groups are only one part of the story. Organisations nowadays have access to a vast wealth of customer interaction via social media. Whatever we think of online interactions, we are only beginning to tap the vast potential which comes from having an instant two-way dialogue with customers. You may see social media as a marketing tool but believe me, it has vastly more potential as part of the collaborative innovation process.

Focus groups, social media; there are plenty of other options available and every organisation will have an optimal interaction mix. Whether you are working directly with customers or with others in order to deliver solutions which will benefit customers, the key to success is to be open, to understand that collaboration is not the same as task allocation. Through collaboration, through being open to ideas and influences from a wide constituency you can truly deliver solutions which are greater than you could ever hope to realise on your own.

I left you at the end of the last article with a quote from Charles Darwin, this time I leave you with a quote from Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer:

When you need to innovate, you need collaboration.”

It’s as simple as that.

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