How to innovate in an age of change and complexity


By Ali Elmi

It’s a rainy and cold day in Toronto. I am standing on the side of the road and waving to every Yellow cab driver I see, to catch a ride.After a good thirty minutes, soaked in rain and feeling miserable, I catch a taxi. It was February 2008.

Five days  later after that Taxi ride, I landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  I needed a phone and simcard. My driver Babu, took me to Mursalat, a phone market. When we arrived at this market, there were hundreds of small tiny shops and each shop there were few desks each selling phones and accessories. As I jumped from one store to the next, I noticed eighty percent the phones was Nokia made. It was indeed the undisputed king of the Saudi phone market at the time. I also noticed, almost every store that I went to, there was one desk that the customers congregated and they were all looking at or buying Motorola Razr. My driver told me, you are a business man don’t buy Nokia buy Razr, it shows prestige.

The above story leads me to discuss the title of this posting. If you are CEO or founder or an entrepreneur, you really don’t need a Chrystal ball to see what the future holds for your product or service. I am almost certain, the CEO of Yellow Cab rarely took a taxi. If he did, he would have done something about it before Uber did. If Nokia CEO was seeing what his customers were looking at the stores he would have mobilized a team and came up with a cutting-edge product. But, they were not there and they were not observing their service, product or market.

To really innovate, all you need is to be a user of your product or service. When I say user, I don’t mean superficially using a day or two in a controlled environment but to do scientific observation from all angles of how your product is used. I know you are going to say, tell that to Steve Easterbrook, the CEO of McDonald’s! my reply to you is, you don’t have to consume everything but you must at least see the process of delivering the service or product to your customer from the customer’s perspective and not from your employees perspective. Employees are usually biased and love the products and services they produce.

You need to do two kinds of observations; one done by the company and another by an independent source.

For instance, if you are the CEO of Verizon, how about riding along with your technicians for a day and see how they deliver services. How about having front seat in a customer installation both residential and commercial customers. How about taking a ride to a customer complaint and see what the technicians go through to fix the issue. See the road traffic, the weather, the customer inter actions such as: Is the appointment booking window optimal? Are we on-time to appointments? Are we improving our time-to-service, initiation and resolution? What percentage of jobs is completed successfully on the first call? Are we reducing the number of repeat visits? How often does lack of the appropriate part contribute to a return visit?.

How about visiting a customer with chronic problems and opening a trouble ticket for that customer and watch the communications and fix process. Some of this data can be gathered from KPI metrics but really there is no substitute to first hand observation if you want to become an innovative company.

Observation of how your products and services are used from an unbiased source is the first step for innovation. How the product is delivered, bought, sold, distributed, used, exchanged and the views people hold about your product or service is very essential.

Industry benchmarks and studies in these days are almost irrelevant. I am comparing the service my car dealer provides to the service I get when I visit the apple store or Ikea. Guess what, if Ford dealers are comparing themselves against similar dealers, they already out of the customer’s service game. But how would Ford executives know the fact that their customers are comparing them against different industry?  Again observation and speaking with the customers is the answer.

For instance, ask your customers where do they believe they receive the best customer service and why? You will be surprised what you will find. Find out what the buyers of your products or services are looking at when they are shopping for your products or services. What do they do with your product or service? Where do they consume it? How do they feel about it? What other similar products or services are they using or thinking using. What is wrong with the product or the service? And how can be improved. How is the product or service presented to the customer? Where is it presented? Who else might be able to use my product or service?

You see, individuals and companies don’t just innovate and come up with brilliant idea or product. By using a product or service, they see a pain, an unmet need and they jump and fill it.  As an executive, a founder or an entrepreneur, you need to find out what that gap is and fill it before a competitor or new disrupter fills it.


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