The real question that drives insight and innovation

Almost 10 years ago, two entrepreneurs returned to their alma mater to talk about their latest venture – an app. Only two years earlier, the iPhone had launched and the App Store ecosystem had been born. With this new technology came a flood of apps. While others used insight to find who to sell their new technology to, the two entrepreneurs approached it from the other direction. They spoke to consumers first and asked them what it was they wanted to do but just weren’t able to. They then made a list of five problems – which we now recognise as ‘jobs to be done’ (JTBD), each with unmet needs – shortlisted them to three and designed technology-based solutions around each of them. Sixteen months later, with only 11 employees, they sold Instagram for a billion dollars – a mind-numbing amount at that time.

So when they were asked by the next generation of budding billionaires: “Why is it so hard to create such brilliant solutions?”, the answer was simple – “The solutions are easy. It’s the problem that’s the problem.” Fast forward 10 years and, while so much has changed, there is still so much that has not. What’s the problem you are going to solve?

We live in a world of continuous disruption. Much as the term has been overused, it is still accurate. Consumer and shopper behaviours are being influenced by bleeding-edge technology that is hiding in plain sight. Anyone who has ever taken an Uber cab, listened to Spotify, watched Netflix, rented an Airbnb room or shopped on Amazon will know it. The technology is completely secondary to the experience it facilitates. In this world, even the best struggle to keep up. Some have great insight, others have great ideas – but, if they are not set in the right context, their chances of survival diminish rapidly.

So why talk about insight and innovation now? Of course, we are doing research and digging for insights. Is innovation on our agenda? Very likely. But, here’s the thing. The proverbial tanker is shifting. We are moving from a traditional R&D-led evolution to a consumer-first world and, as such, the role that insights can play in an effective innovation process is also changing. The consumer is empowered and they are ‘hiring’ brands that either surprise and delight them or ‘firing’ the ones that no longer do it for them (kudos to Clay Christensen and Bob Moesta for their JTBD thinking!).

Here’s a thought. What if, instead of inventing more new things and finding who to sell them to, we were to design specific value propositions around these ‘jobs’ that consumers are trying to do? What if we could go even further and build the science and tech into these value propositions up front, rather than hooking the consumer with an idea and then figuring out how to make the tech work down the line?

In this sense, some might argue it’s the start-ups that have a killer advantage. They are able to toggle between the technology and the behaviours created by the experience in an iterative way. They have singular clarity as to the problem they are solving and they are checking in with their consumer at every stage as they develop relevant value propositions and solutions. It’s more than just clever market research, it’s a ‘test-and-learn’ culture that allows them to connect insight with innovation in a way that is actionable and efficient. So, when they detect a problem worth solving, they can respond quickly and, if the problem changes, they’re ready for that too.

But they shouldn’t get too comfortable. Large corporations are working smarter, leaner and more agile than ever before. They are restructuring for growth, revisioning and closing capability gaps. They are creating new partnerships to explore blank canvases in spaces they might not have normally explored before. They are challenging category rules and aren’t always playing to expectations. Through these partnerships, large companies are gaining new, deeper cross-category insights. They are flexing their innovation muscles and launching more products with fewer risks.

At last check, there are 200+ unicorns valued at an estimated $800bn+ (Source: CB Insights), all solving problems, all being funded on the promise that they can profitably deliver next-generation, tech-driven experiences grounded firmly in consumer insights within a disruptive market context. That money will have to come from somewhere – either from existing profit pools, driven by existing business models or through innovation. 

So, it does seem to beg the question: “What is the problem you will solve?” – and how will you use insight to improve your innovation hit rates? As a front-end innovation specialist, it’s a question I tackle just about every day in every way.