Friday, January 22, 2016

4 Voices That Could Pull Your Company Out of the Innovation Rut

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk
I originally wrote today's post for Intradiem. It was published on their blog on August 20, 2015.

How do you drive innovation within your organization? Do you think outside of the box to think outside of the box?

When you're designing or redesigning your customer experience, it's critical to listen to - and understand - your customers, what they are trying to do, and how well it's going. (And then act on what you hear and let them know what you've done.)

I recently wrote about the many voices of customer experience, all important to total customer understanding. Those voices come from customers, partners, employees, and customers through employees. Additional, less familiar voices are those of the business (financial and operational data and metrics) and of the market (brand and competitive data).

A couple weeks ago, I came across a book by Wayne C. Burkan titled Wide-Angle Vision: Beat Your Competition by Focusing on Fringe Competitors, Lost Customers, and Rogue Employees. It's on my reading list, and I hope to get to it in the coming weeks, but he poses an interesting idea: to break out of your shell, to break away from the herd (mentality), to get out of the rut your business may be in, to innovate and to succeed, you need to listen to those on the edge.

What does that mean?

He says every company has a mainstream and an edge. Your mainstream consists of your established customers, best employees, and biggest competitors. Success is defined by growing your customer base and having competitors imitate what you're doing. The mainstream is all about today. He defines the edge as those who see the world through a different lens and are dissatisfied with today's solutions. They're not better or smarter; they just have different needs. They're not trying to be difficult; they're only trying to solve their own problems.

I think we're all pretty clear on what's mainstream and which voices would fall into that category: they'd be the ones I've already mentioned above.

But what about the edge?

Burkan says the following are classified as the edge: lost customers, rogue employees, fringe competitors, and fringe suppliers: he claims they are your best source of information to drive innovation.

Let's step away from the book for a minute, and I'll give you my thoughts on each of these voices.

Voice 1: Lost Customers
Let's start with lost customers. They fall into three buckets: (1) complaining customers are those who might be lost customers eventually because you cannot - or can no longer - meet their evolving needs or solve their problems; they complain because they hope to influence product decisions or enhancements, not to be difficult; (2) those who were customers and left because they gave up on you; and (3) those who were prospects but selected a competitor because you couldn't quite meet all of their needs.

Lost customers from any one of these buckets are good for identifying where the market may be headed because they came to you for something they liked but then you weren't (or were no longer) able to solve their problems or meet their growing, emerging needs. It's important to capture their feedback and track all of their enhancements, requests, and needs that you can't currently meet, as some day they will become their expectations - whether you deliver them or someone else does. Perhaps they are lost customers because you just aren't prepared to meet their needs today, but if you listen, you'll be able to figure out where your products need to be sooner rather than later.

Voice 2: Fringe Competitors
The crazy thing about competitors is that everyone wants to be like them. We think that we're losing customers to competitors because they're doing something innovative or cool that we should be doing. Maybe. But maybe they're listening to all of their customers, all of the voices. Maybe they're doing a great job of understanding their needs, today's needs along with emerging trends.

Fringe competitors are made; they are not born. Remember those lost and complaining customers? These fringe competitor companies were created as a result of them - because they couldn't find a solution with those mainstream companies. So, fringe competitors were created by you, in a sense. They had a better idea or a better solution.

Voice 3: Rogue Employees
Burkan states that rogue employees have two traits: (1) they are opposed to - or question - everything (policies, procedures, plans, etc.), and (2) they are never team players. They see things differently, but they see them clearly and can't understand why others don't/can't.

We know that employees are (often) your best source of information and ideas. It's worthwhile to listen to all employees, even those that are misunderstood. While their viewpoints may be different, their ideas challenge a system that often needs to be challenged. Why do we continue to do things this way? "This is how we've always done it" is not an acceptable response to rogue employees. They are rebels with a cause; they buck the system and question the status quo because they know there's a better way. They may not always be right (and probably often aren't), but if we don't listen to them, we'll never know.

They may infuse some fresh thinking, and that's not a bad thing. Don't stifle or squash new ideas just because they aren't what "you usually do." Stop the trend of the blind leading the blind. Get out of the rut and start asking some serious questions. Listen to your rogue employees.

Voice 4: Fringe Suppliers
Many companies select strategic partners or preferred providers as a way to secure price breaks and other relationship benefits. These partners often are (or become) no more than extensions of the company, a mirror of what the company already does and believes in - dare I say, "yes men" who lack creativity and become complacent with the way things are (because, hey, they are getting paid) rather than suggesting better or different solutions.

Rogue or fringe suppliers or partners often offer different and innovative business approaches and solutions, but because they don't align with your approach are cast out and ignored. I've worked with clients who say they don't want a "yes man" as a partner. To them, I say "Bravo!" You just really have to mean it; in the end, don't say it if you don't. Some of those same clients also beat me up until I agreed to just say "yes." Not good! Your partners should challenge the status quo and help you identify ways to be better overall.

Can these four voices change the shape of your future, the shape of your organization?

I know you can't listen to everyone. And some voices drown out others, while others may carry more weight. Just don't be afraid to listen to different voices. If you're stuck in a rut and looking for ways to innovate and grow and be different, have a listen to those on the edge. You might just be surprised by what you hear.

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. -Apple Inc.


  1. Interesting perspectives Annette, I wonder what would have happened to Kodak if they had spent more time on the Edge of their business

  2. Annette,
    This is a great idea and approach but doesn't lend itself to an 'easy life'. Therefore, I'm not sure how many businesses would pursue this type of approach unless they really had to, which is a shame.


    1. That's true, Adrian. I suppose the "good news" about this approach is that not everyone will do it. Those who are truly innovative, or want to be, will. The rest, well, they'll just keep being the sheep they are. :-)

  3. Really thought provoking. I guess for many organisations the 'edge' is just a lot of work. I remember once complaining about someone as difficult and being told by my enlightened boss that they were simply a future leader frustrated with where they currently are. Quite a change of perspective and turned out to be spot on. Like the idea here!

    1. Thanks, Andy. It's true... those who think that way are few and far between. Thanks for the example.

  4. It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
    -Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969

    1. Thanks. The challenge with many quotes is that the attribution is often inaccurate; sometimes they are attributed to multiple sources. Hemingway seems to be the one cited most often for this quote, but if Ursula said it first, I stand corrected.