Learning from the Valley

Recently I had the pleasure to spend a week in Palo Alto with a client group, helping to introduce them to the topic of innovation through experiential learning.

The week consisted of a combination of visits to the local innovation centres of companies such as SAP; talks by leading thinkers in the innovation space such as Prof Henry Chesbrough and Prof Bob Sutton; and workshops with innovation leaders such as Ericsson, Google and the Design School at Stanford.  All of this was backed up by a firm grounding in the Strategos Innovation Process with a focus on developing new perspectives and insights about a series of real business challenges.

Of course, the first learning for someone new to Silicon Valley is that it is not actually a valley …. and nowadays it is just as much about bio-tech and social media as it is about silicon chips, but heh what’s in a name.

One immediate question might be .. ‘why go all the way to Palo Alto  to learn about innovation?’. Well I think the answer to that relates back to what the ‘Valley’ actually is .. an amazing innovation eco-system of leading edge technology companies both large and small, creative services providers, academia, venture capital, government agencies, start-ups, serial entrepreneurs, and independent thinkers and makers that has attracted, and continues to attract, the best minds for more than half a century. And as the icing on the cake, it is located in a very attractive part of the Bay area just south of San Francisco where the buzz of innovation is palpable.

So what did we learn from the week ….  well the answer is many, many things but two things stick in my mind as they were constantly re-enforced by the speakers and through our visits; and they lie at the core of the Strategos approach:

1. Customer Empathy

All great innovators seek to build an understanding of the unmet or unarticulated needs of a customer through the development of genuine empathy for the situation of that customer. Some of our speakers called this ‘Design Thinking’, others called it ‘Customer-centred innovation’ or ‘Human-centred innovation. We call it simply ‘Customer Insight’ and we use a range of techniques that help us to build a 360 degree understanding of the customer within the context of the innovation challenge that we are engaged in; we seek to move beyond the usual techniques of focus interviews and questionnaires and develop a deep understanding of the lives and context of the target customers. Such an approach involves essentially primary techniques that engage directly with the customer like consumer ethnography, mystery shopping, shop-alongs, immersion in the user experience, DILO’s (Day In the Life Of), and consumer experience mapping … to name but a few.

What all of these techniques ultimately do is build an understanding of the customer so that we, as innovators, can see beyond the obvious solutions and imagine a product, service or business model that truly delights and inspires the user.

To illustrate this technique, when we are asked by a Swedish cosmetics client to help develop new male grooming products for the Indian market we conducted detailed studies of 16 men, in Mumbai and Delhi. We spent a day with each of them, observing their grooming rituals, discovering their attitudes to grooming and the way they used their current products, but most importantly we also built up a comprehensive picture of the role grooming and appearance played in their lives and careers.

Indian barbers

2. Failing fast

It is OK to fail (as long as you fail fast) or to put that slightly differently we need to experiment with our prototypes and learn whether our initial assumptions about such things as ‘what we deliver’, ‘to whom’, ‘in what way’, ‘at what price’ are true  …. And if not we adjust the necessary elements of our business model and experiment again until we reach a stage where we are happy with the degree of further risk versus probability of success.  This iterative approach is at the core of what we call Agile Commercialisation and this forms the basis for all of our work with clients where we take potential opportunities and turn them into realizable concepts.

To illustrate this let’s look at Redbox … the initial concept was an unattended retail store with convenience store product selection, minimal labor costs, convenience store price premiums and the ability to pay only by credit/debit card.

However rapid feedback on this original idea led to significant changes so that the pilot became a DVD kiosk with 200 titles per machine, a 24 hour rental period, accessed by membership cards, and based in urban locations. Again rapid feedback and re-work lead to the final launch which was a DVD kiosk serving top thirty titles, with an open rental period and based in suburban locations. The key lesson is to prototype, get and act on feedback and be prepared to challenge your original hypotheses and change the ultimate concept.


We learnt many things from our week in the Valley but these two very tangible learnings – one at the front end and one at the back of the innovation process – are so important for those looking to be successful innovators.


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