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How Customer Feedback Can Stymie Innovation

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When one Procter & Gamble team launched Ariel Ultra in , it felt sure that the new laundry detergent, with twice the cleaning power for half the cost and half the space, would be a runaway success. But it was a resounding failure. Why? The disturbing answer: The team asked customers what they wanted instead of innovating themselves.

Asking customers what they want is a "solution-first" approach that places the burden of innovation on the customer's shoulders. Essentially you are asking customers to come up with your innovation, and there are a host of practical and psychological reasons why customers have a hard time getting "outside the box" and describing anything beyond incremental improvements.

Related: Seven Simple Tips to Get Honest Customer Feedback Online

The practical reasons are simple: innovation thinking is hard mental work, and most customers won't bother to stretch their thinking. The psychological reasons are much deeper. It's what psychologists call "functional fixedness," or the tendency to see something only in the way it is traditionally used. Imagine, for example, needing a wire to solve a puzzle, similar to resetting an electronic device. Most people struggle to solve the problem if given a stack of paper held together by a paperclip; however, they can easily solve the problem if given a stack of paper and a paperclip separately. These mental blocks combined are why asking your customers to innovate for you almost always lead to disappointing, incremental ideas.

Conversely, in our book, "The Innovator's Method: Bringing the Lean Startup into Your Organization," we found that successful disruptive innovators start with the problem rather than the solution. Instead of asking customers what features they want, they observed their customers to understand what "job" they were trying to get done and the "outcomes" they longed for beyond the obvious.

For example, people don't want an iron and ironing board. They want wrinkle-free clothing. If you see the customer problem as how to improve the features of an iron and ironing board, you may miss more innovative ways to create wrinkle free clothing—perhaps by using a spray or creating a steaming device to eliminate wrinkles. After deeply understanding the job that customers are trying to get done, it's much easier to brainstorm a variety of potential solutions that customers can validate.

P&G ultimately resolved the Ariel Ultra debacle with a "fly on the wall" approach, watching people do laundry to understand what they struggle with as they do this chore. They probed deeply into their perceptions about how they knew that a detergent was working for them.

Related: We Have Lost Sight of the Real Meaning of Innovation

This insight quickly proved why Ariel Ultra failed: for most users, using less soap seemed counterintuitive. It was their perception that less soap means less cleaning power. Moreover, the soap didn't produce the same amount of suds that they were used to seeing—and suds were their only signal that the clothes were getting clean. They also discovered a critical insight into users' laundry problems: individuals took on average six trips that averaged a half mile per trip to complete the many stages of laundry.

Using this insight, P&G launched a successful new product, Downey Single Rinse, which produces more suds with less detergent, reducing trips from six to three. This solution helped P&G's customer do the real job to be done: clean clothes with less time and money.

If you're seeking ground-breaking innovation for your own business, stop delegating it to your customers and start delivering it by observing, experimenting with and understanding what they're really looking for.

Related: Unintended Consequences: How Consumer Misuse Can Boost Sales

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