Starting: Product and Service Innovation Starting: Product and Service Innovation

By Phil Gibbs on August 19, 2014

Whether you are an entrepreneur doing a traditional startup or a corporate executive looking to create your company’s next great product or service, you have to start somewhere.  I know—that is profound.  But really, it is at the root of most entrepreneurial and corporate innovation failures.  We simply never start!

Get Over “The Next Big Thing” Syndrome

First, we have to get over “the next big thing” syndrome that leads to believing we cannot start unless we come up with a really “big” idea.   If we can move beyond that, eventually we realize that it doesn’t matter where we start.  What is important is where we end up, not where we start.

A startup is about rapid iterations and learning.  So we can start almost anywhere if we intensely engage customers from the very beginning and use what we learn to iterate and pivot when necessary, until we achieve that almost magical product-market fit.

Then what is the big deal about where you start?  Since we have to start somewhere, we must get comfortable with the fact that we are not geniuses and that the initial idea is almost always wrong.  When we get to that point, we are much freer to use our imaginations and just start.

Finding the Product-Market Fit

While it is true that we can get to the desired product-market fit from almost anywhere, some starting points, however, are closer and take less time and resources to get to the end point—it is a matter of efficiency.

So how do you start as close as possible?  Traditionally we have thought in terms of solving customer problems and customers are certainly the place to start.  While the problem-solution paradigm is helpful, I find it less than inspiring.

Another approach is to ask customers what they want and need.   That is getting a little closer, but it is hard to discern wants and needs.  And it still does not bring into sharp focus exactly what the product or service should do for the customer.

Observing Customer Behavior

There is another frame through which we can identify where to start that I find much more helpful.  It is rooted in customer behavior, which I believe is more helpful in this context than perceptions, attitudes, and aspirations.

The approach is really very simple—customers have jobs to do and they look for products and services to “hire” to do those jobs.  This concept was laid out by Christensen and others in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article.  I believe it provides a more robust, focused approach to identifying the starting point for new products and services.

The methodology basically involves observation and questioning.  Our task is to actively observe the “jobs” customers have to do as they work and play.  And then we must probe and find out everything we can about the jobs.

Observation is the foundation.  This of course is not new—observation is a basic tool of everything from anthropology to the lean methodology.  It is part of the reason that corporations often have more difficulty innovating than entrepreneurs—it is difficult to observe customer behavior sitting in the C-suite or boardroom.

If we observe a visitor to a city, we may observe that she has the “job” of getting from point “A” to point “B”.  Current options include driving, hailing a cab, or accessing Uber.

If we observe a small business owner, we may observe the “job” of securing a place to work with colleagues and meet with clients.  Options include turning his home dining room into an office, finding a table in a crowded coffee shop, signing a five-year office lease, or becoming a member at E|SPACES.  Yes, this is a little shameless self promotion.

If we observe a millennial pursuing a new career opportunity, the “job” may be to learn coding.   She can enroll in a university, read books and watch instructional videos on her own, or enroll in a free online course.

There are two very important points as we observe and ask questions about the jobs.  First, are people actively looking for a product or service to do the job?  Not a particular product—people weren’t looking for a light bulb but a way to get the “job” of seeing at night done.  If they are actively searching, don’t start celebrating, but you may have found a great starting point.

Second, is there a simpler, more convenient and cheaper way to do the job?  If yes, you can celebrate a little because you have identified a potential disruptive innovation.

While the differences among the “problem-solution”, “wants and needs”, and “job to be done” paradigms are subtle and all can be helpful, I believe the “job to be done” framework brings into much clearer focus the desired starting points for both traditional entrepreneurs and innovative corporate executives.

So in the words of serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, “get out of the building.”  Ask questions and probe. Observe as you have never observed before.  And when you find a job that people are looking to hire a product or service to do, you have your place to start.



Written by Phil Gibbs, Ph.D., Co-Founder and Director, E|SPACES, Inc., and Chief Innovation Officer, The Disruption Lab

Originally published 6/16/14 in, Copyright © 2014 Gibbs Solutions Group, LLC



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