When innovating for the future, many people find inspiration in a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Whether or not Ford actually said these words, the premise is wrong. Ford's customer base might not have invented automobiles on their own, but they did know they wanted a faster, reliable and more comfortable way to get from point A to point B. They needed Ford to come up with the right solution.
We often talk about innovation solely in the context of bleeding-edge technology, but technology is simply a tool to help you solve your customers' problems. Future-proofing your company requires putting yourself in the customers' shoes and building your business around their needs. Here are five tips to prepare your company for the future.
1. Fixate on the problem
Innovation grows from understanding what your customers want to achieve and why. Watch how your customers use your product to determine how you can best solve their problem. If you try to achieve this outcome, you'll move away from developing features for the sake of adding bells and whistles.
For example, Apple's click-wheel interface on the first iPod solved a problem for its users by giving them a way to quickly and easily navigate hundreds of files on a small screen. Apply this outcome orientation to your strategy by observing, listening and soliciting customer feedback.
2. Think beyond your core product
We live in a service economy in which companies have transcended selling products; they're now selling experiences. Think about how you can add value to your customers and help them achieve their desired outcome through the holistic experience you provide.
For example, Hilton Hotels recently revamped its HHonors app, so customers can choose a hotel, preview their room and book a stay via the mobile app. When they arrive at the hotel, they bypass the check-in counter and seamlessly enter their hotel room using near-field communication (NFC) on their smartphones. Hilton Hotels is differentiating its brand in a crowded industry and giving its customers more control to personalize their hotel stay.
3. Build in an open way
New products or features don't always work the way customers want them to. Even if it meets your customers' needs today, those needs and pain-points will likely change over time.
When it comes to software companies in particular, it's important to build technology that's flexible and doesn't paint your customers into a corner. Make sure your product can integrate with other existing solutions as well as those that might emerge in the future. Your technology should always be able to evolve along with your customers and their needs.
4. Stay plugged into the market
Whether you're just getting started in your industry or you've been involved in it for decades, it's important to stay immersed in your market. Stay in touch with other entrepreneurs, follow your competitors and use social media to follow influencers in your space.
Beware of the "Founder’s Dilemma" - don’t get caught up in wealth or control. Stay connected to what's happening in your industry and commit to delighting your customers.
Engage with partners to learn more about your customers and how they're using technology. Ask questions and crowdsource ideas. There's still no substitute for in-person interactions, so attend events and meet with your customers face-to-face. They'll appreciate the face time and you'll gain further insights into how best to serve them.
5. Inspire employees to innovate
Everyone has good ideas about how to expand a product and innovate. The leaders at future-proof companies understand that a strong company culture helps surface these ideas and spur innovation. Build a culture that aligns employees around a strong mission, values clear communication and encourages people to pursue their creative ideas. Set aside time for experimentation and empower employees to get involved in projects and jobs outside of their typical role.
Don’t focus all of your time, energy or resources on a single strategy for future-proofing. Instead, divide your energy between these three activities:
Listening: Fulfilling customers' requests for certain features and improving your product
Connecting: Understand the market and your competitors
Experimenting: Looking ahead at opportunities for the products and services your customers don't yet know they need
Balancing these three things (paying attention to your customers, keeping your pulse on the market and innovating ahead of the market) will prepare your company for tomorrow and the years ahead. As you work to do so, however, don't lose sight of your mission to create better outcomes for your customers.
Your customers are both the problem and solution when it comes to future-proofing your company. Technology is the screwdriver that will help you get there.
By Darren Guarnaccia