When It Comes to Innovation: the Customer Should Never Be Right

If they are: you are no longer innovating. And we need to innovate now more than ever.

Let’s say you’re the chef at a restaurant.

You want your customers to come in, make a selection from the menu, and be satisfied by the result.

This is a formula we all recognize. We’ve all been to restaurants and seen this in action (this century at least, restaurants are still a relatively new thing for our species in the grander timeline).

But here’s the version of this transaction more often seen in practice on innovation teams:

The customer comes in and dictates a menu, micromanages the cooking of the thing they’ve demanded, and then is (unsurprisingly) not impressed with the result.

The value of the innovation “chefs” in this scenario should be their birds eye view of the situation — they know what ingredients exist or are coming into existence. They know what ingredients happen to be in season and available. They know how all the equipment in the kitchen works. They know the value of their dining room over other nearby restaurants and in their industry around the world. And most importantly — they know how best to combine and prepare the ingredients into the resulting dishes and frame their dishes appetizingly to serve them.

In an ideal version of this scenario, the chefs would also be the ones ordering for the customers from the menu (having qualitatively and quantitatively surveyed the customer and their lifestyle and knowing what is going to best suit their tastes and circumstances). We’ll probably get there relatively soon in actual restaurants (thanks to advances in biology to understand gut biomes, social media activity based intelligence tracking, and the increase in actual AI application at scale, but that’s another story for another time).

To get the best innovation outcomes, the “customer” has to be passive instead of active for the chef to do their jobs and for the customer to then reap the full delicious benefits of the situation

When it comes to “innovation,” an active customer is going to stop anything new or unfamiliar or threatening from ever getting on the menu.

Such is the nature of “innovation.” But maybe it’s time to stop and define some terms for some clarity

What IS “innovation”?

Sadly, if you ask Google directly — you get the desultory response “Innovation is the act of innovating.” And you should know to automatically be wary of anything that uses itself to define itself. A better definition: “To innovate is to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.”

The very process of innovation therefore depends on one’s awareness of what that “something established” is.

This means not just awareness of what that established system is and does and affects — but what’s working and what’s not in terms of its processes and goals. Understanding an established system requires a holistic overview approach. It requires seeing the forest, not just a single tree.

Innovation is something that can only be done from within an established system by someone willing to climb up a tree or fly over it all in a plane and look at the broader surroundings. That said, more often than not, “innovation” these days is accomplished by embedding external consultants in the system to adjust it. The problem being, that they are automatically handicapped as well by virtue of being embedded. i.e Usually that embed process doesn’t necessarily let them climb trees or get the aerial view, but it is –at least- a tower in one part of the forest that allows them to see that part of the forest in some bit of context.

Philosophically, per Hegel — once something is familiar, it is automatically an unknown. Get too sucked into the forest and you’re only ever going to see the trees. Sadly, in most situations, in order to get ahead in this proverbial forest, you’re often going to be encouraged to only see the trees — our current fear culture based systems don’t approve of climbing or flying or building a tower. Looking at the forest might lead to actual change to the nature and borders and systems of the established forest. And we’re actively afraid of that happening, especially in the US (See: American Innovation is Dying, Part One).

If only there were people with expertise in studying “forests”?

Or moving beyond the now-belabored forest metaphor — if only there were people who study how to study people?

Oh wait — there are.

Anthropology and its sub-disciplines like sociology aren’t just the study of people, they’re the study of how to best go about studying people and the cultural and psychological systems of systems of systems that people participate in. They are the expert chefs, to go back to the even earlier metaphor. And when you have an expert chef in the kitchen, customers are less likely to jump in and start dictating menus. One of the problems all experts face right now though, is that that expertise is increasingly not trusted (again, another story for another time).

When it comes to innovation — more often than not, the customers ARE dictating the menu and hopping into the kitchen rather than trust their expert chefs. Not all of them are bad at it — there are some shining examples of novice chefs who collate what’s needed to make a great “meal.” But more often than not, that’s not the case.

Worse yet, what I’m seeing these days is “innovation” groups within companies and within communities of interest springing up at an alarming rate. And whose core procedures are not based on observing their customers and their processes — but on hardening up the process whereby the customers dictate the menu. This is not the way forward. The customer can NEVER be right when it comes to innovation, because they can never see the whole system to innovate upon it. And yet “the customer is always right” is now becoming the de rigeur way to go about innovation in the United States and beyond.

Doctors are not making it easier for patients to self-diagnose themselves and fill their own prescriptions based on that self-diagnosis. Why are we letting that happen when it comes to innovation?

We need to look at wider systems of systems. We need more expert eyes on systems of systems thinking. And we need less emphasis on fulfilling customers’ immediate whims.

End customers will always be too embedded in their ecosystem to see their own larger picture, let alone the bigger picture beyond them.

And we are at a point in human society where it is a dire pressing need for our species to innovate. We need to effectively innovate at scale on our largest systems in order to surmount the extinction level situations that we are facing in the near-term.

We need to innovate to deal with global population and migration issues.

We need to innovate to restructure our economy and social practices to support everyone, not just a select few.

We need to innovate to deal with how we’re handling the development and sharing of new technologies.

We need to innovate how we’re handling the avalanche of data and ethics with respect to the inevitability of ubiquitous surveillance systems and artificial intelligence at scale (#futurestories).

We need to innovate to handle climate change.

We need to innovate to collaboratively develop new technologies and technology policies to change our processes in order for our species to survive.

We need to survey and approach these issues both with expert eyes and from a broad enough perspective — one beyond the concept of nation-states and political parties and individual organizations and businesses and definitely beyond the scope of the individual end-customers that have someone become the drivers of innovation these days.

We’re all in this together, and as a species-we need more effective ways to innovate on our approaches to life itself.

Let’s stop letting end-customers dictate the menus. Let’s give our chefs the international birds eye views and resources to craft appropriate menus. And let’s leverage our chefs to serve up something deliciously useful for us all.

We’re not going to do very well at this whole ‘survival’ thing if we don’t.

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For Day #2 of my articles-only version of National Novel Writing Month #NaNoWriMo.

All opinions and thoughts expressed are my own and not those of my employers or their affiliates.

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The Past & Future of Technology, esp 3D. Former: Anthropologist, Engineer, Archaeologist, Biz Intel, Data Sorceress. Now: Govt Strategist & Venture Capitalist.

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Ash M. Richter

Ash M. Richter

The Past & Future of Technology, esp 3D. Former: Anthropologist, Engineer, Archaeologist, Biz Intel, Data Sorceress. Now: Govt Strategist & Venture Capitalist.

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