Companies Are Brilliantly Solving the Wrong Problems
“I’m a problem solver,” the innovation manager at my first job used to say. “You give me a problem, I’ll give you a solution. That’s why people keep hiring me.”
He was right on all counts. People gave him problems, he solved those problems, and people kept hiring him. However, the more I got into the science of innovating, the more I realized this innovation manager wasn’t actually innovating at all. Sure, he would do whatever people told him to — but he never knew why he was doing it. He took the problem as a given. And most of the time, that meant he did a great job solving the wrong problems.
My manager was far from the exception. Companies have generally become very good at solving the wrong problems. What I mean by this is that most companies fail to uncover what their actual problems are — or where their real opportunities lie, and they excel at solving the problems they do uncover, simply because it taps into their existing knowledge, experience, and skills.
Addressing the wrong problems
BlackBerry continued to improve its physical keyboards because it wanted to focus on business emails. Kodak didn’t recognize its own invention of digital photography as disruptive. Blockbuster turned down a deal with Netflix because it didn’t think customers wanted movies delivered.
Obviously, there’s no single explanation for why companies fail to recognize their biggest problems or greatest opportunities. Most industries have, due to increasing international competition, come to realize that if a product isn’t good enough or appealing enough to customers, those customers will most likely buy a different version somewhere else. In response, companies are eager to seek out new ways to learn what their customers want.
But unfortunately, these same companies are often not very good at figuring out what customers actually want.
Ford’s faster horses
Critics of customer-driven innovation oftentimes aim to cleverly derail discussions on its value by using the classic Henry Ford-attributed quote: “If I had asked people…