To Flip the Innovating Switch, Become a Customer

As an innovation trainer, I am often asked by business leaders, “How can we jumpstart the practice of innovating at our organization?” After all, most companies at least pay lip service to the value of innovation. But, in practice, only a select handful of people actually devote time and energy to innovating—which means that many good ideas for improved products, services, processes, and business models never see the light of day.  


I’m a great believer in the idea that everyone is capable of innovating—that there is no special genius or talent required to come up with new ways of doing business. There are two simple keys to unlocking the gift of innovating within all of your team members: 

  • First, give everyone in your organization permission to innovate.

  • Then, to make sure this permission is translated into actual behavior, create opportunities for people to use, train, and develop their “innovating muscles.”

You can start the process simply by giving your team members 30 minutes on a regular basis when they can switch from the execution mindset to the innovation mindset. 

One way to do this: Ask them to visit a customer and simply observe, explore, and try to understand what the customer is trying to accomplish. Invite them to ask questions and to take notes on how the customer is struggling with their “job to be done.” The goal is to spend 30 minutes looking at the customer with a deep sense of empathy, sharing the customer’s perspective on the company’s products and services. The result may be a fresh way of thinking about the company and its offerings—the kind of seed that can grow into a valuable innovation.  

Here’s a simple example. When my writing partner Karl Weber was an editor at Random House, the giant U.S. book publisher, he took part in an exercise in which he and other editors were asked to go to a small local bookstore they had never visited before. Their assignment was to look for several fairly obscure Random House books of various kinds—romances, how-to books, kids’ books, business books, and so on—just like a customer in search of a book to purchase. Then they were to note what happened, and, especially, any difficulties that arose in the process.  

The result was quite eye-opening. The editors discovered—or re-discovered—how challenging it can be for an ordinary reader to find a specific book in an unfamiliar bookstore. 

They realized how overwhelmed bookstore employees were by the thousands of new books constantly flooding the market. And they came to recognize the importance of small things they’d overlooked before, such as clear, descriptive book titles; explanatory text on the covers of books; and labels indicating accurately the category and topic of each book. Done properly, all of these things could help bookstore workers shelve new books correctly and guide readers to them more easily—which would lead to more book sales and more happy customers. 

The editors came away from this simple exercise with new insights into how they could improve the packaging and marketing of their books to serve customers better. 

Invite your team members to become customers for a day and discover what they can learn in the process. You may be pleasantly surprised by the creative results this simple activity can generate. 

Stay tuned: In my next blog post, I’ll share another technique for helping your organization flip its innovating switch. 

Meanwhile, here’s an invitation: When was the last time you had the opportunity to see your business through the eyes of a customer? What did you learn that surprised you? Did you discover something new that you could be doing to help customers tackle their “jobs to be done” more easily and enjoyable? Share your story with our readers—we’d love to hear it and learn from it!


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