The term “innovation” conjures up a multitude of visions. Most people associate innovation with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing. Or they think of venture funded startup firms working on hot new products, such as Grail, which seeks to develop blood tests for early detection of cancers. But rarely is innovation associated with improvements to the basic, everyday customer experience.
Innovation is generally thought of as having to do with product and technology development, not methods for improving services, processes, or programs that can enhance the customer experience at any given touch point with a company. However, the basic process for innovation is equally applicable for this task.
In this post I will outline a basic process for innovation that I’ve initially conceived over 25 years as an innovation manager at Fortune 500 companies and then refined over the past 6 years in my post-corporate journey as a professor, consultant, author and speaker on business innovation. In future posts I will provide more in-depth discussions of each phase of the innovation process, as well as where it can be specifically applied to improve the customer experience.
I prefer simple approaches to describing a process. Thus I advocate just four basic phases each titled by a single word:
Companies that follow this process can gain a competitive advantage by systematically identifying both tactical and strategic initiatives that will improve the customer experience. This can lead to both a superior competitive position and long-term company success. The innovation process can be equally applied towards new products, services, programs or processes targeted to both external and internal customers. This means innovation is just as important for customer facing initiatives, as internal process improvements.
1 – THE EXPLORE PHASE
Explore is the first phase of the innovation process. It is the phase in which CX and market research professionals are often most familiar and comfortable. In the Explore phase we seek to gain a deep understanding of the customer. Generally, we want to gather data in a way that we can empathize with the customer’s end-to-end journey. Specifically, we need to identify moments of truth, customer pain points, and challenges in those moments. This can be done with a variety of tools, often in combination, including CX tracking programs, customer journey mapping, in-depth interviews, focus groups and ethnographic research.
No matter how you are collecting data, it is particularly important to look for common themes. I like to summarize the themes into a vision of what customers would prefer to experience. I call these summaries the “themes for ideation.” The themes for ideation may not have been articulated by any one customer in the research, rather they are a composite description that is crafted based on what the research has informed us.
When it is performed comprehensively, the Explore phase sets up the entire innovation process for success. I often cite a famous quote from Albert Einstein to capture the importance of spending the proper time and resources to conduct the Explore phase. Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” The reason for this is that when you properly understand the problem, the potential solutions become obvious.
2 – THE IDEATE PHASE
The Explore phase is the fuel for the second phase in the innovation process which I call the “Ideate” phase. In this phase we generate as many ideas as possible in order to solve for customer pain points, challenges, and the themes for ideation.
The Ideate phase is the fun part of the innovation process. And that fun should be extended broadly to as many people in the organization as possible. Decades ago, it was common for upper management to be the only source of ideas in a company. But in today’s business environment, the most innovative companies have embraced open innovation, in which ideas can come from any employee and even from people outside the organization; including suppliers, consultants and even customers. At the very least, it is important to solicit ideas from a wide cross-functional team. There are several reasons why it makes sense to encourage ideas from cross-functional teams, which we will discuss in depth for a later post.
It is also critically important to allow time to generate a large number of ideas. In the Ideate phase we take on the ethos of a professional photographer. If you have ever seen a photo shoot, the photographer snaps an incredibly high volume of pictures from different angles, varied lighting and an array of props. The reason photographers do this is to try to maximize their chances of finding one or a few gems when they later review the pictures. Good ideation follows the same principle. We generate a high volume of ideas hoping we end up with one or a few great ones to implement.
The Ideate phase is kept distinct from the Evaluate phase for a good reason. In the Ideate phase we don’t want to judge ideas before we’ve had a chance to hear them and build on them. Some of the greatest ideas in history were almost never implemented because the idea was initially thought to be nonsensical and the idea originator was chastised or worse. Again, I like to quote Einstein, who said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
Einstein is conveying that great ideas that may lead to fantastic solutions can often sound so radical at first that they are easily dismissed.
3 – THE EVALUATE PHASE
Once we are satisfied that we have generated an exhaustive list of ideas, then it is time to move on to the third step in the innovation process – the “Evaluate” phase. When idea generation is complete, it is not uncommon to have hundreds of ideas representing a myriad of potential customer solutions.
Most organizations do not have the resources to invest in large numbers of initiatives. In fact, many companies have budgets that will only allow them to pursue a critical few initiatives. Thus, idea evaluation is an essential step in the innovation process.
There are many methods that can be used to evaluate and select the optimal ideas. In evaluating ideas, I like to deploy the adage that the customer must come first. Customer feedback on ideas is critical to ensuring that a potential solution does in fact solve a customer problem or will contribute towards increased customer delight.
In addition, ideas need to be evaluated in terms of a company’s core competencies and specifically the company’s ability to cost effectively deliver on the idea. When an idea scores high on customer feedback, core competencies to deliver and the ability to develop it cost effectively, then it has a high likelihood of successful implementation.
4 – THE DESIGN PHASE
When the Evaluate phase is complete, we have agreement and possibly the funding allocated for a few initiatives. Now we are ready to begin the final phase of the innovation process – the “Design” phase.
In Design we start by diving deeply into each of the ideas that have been selected to understand the customer requirements for implementation of the idea. We then build rapid prototypes so that we can test the solution and validate basic assumptions, such as does it solve the customer’s problem. Rapid prototypes do not need to be complete working solutions. In fact, in their earliest stages they can be as simple as a video that demonstrates the vision.
The key to successful design is to enable multiple iterations of a prototype build/test/refine cycle. Once we have refined prototypes that pass all of our tests, we are ready to build out the solution for the customer.
CREATING A CULTURE OF INNOVATION
A systematic innovation process can provide your organization with the ability to better identify and develop initiatives that will improve the customer experience. And even more important, it can create an organizational culture in which all employees feel they are making a contribution towards customer delight and company success.