Listening to Improve Innovation

I’ve been working this week with two teams of MBA students that are working on a live consulting project as part of their studies. This is part of UQ’s partnership with Wharton in their Global Consulting Practicum program, which is a great initiative. This week, we were working on presentations to the clients in order to gain agreement on the scope of the projects that the teams will be working on over the few months.

A similar theme showed up in both of the client presentations: a number of slides were included which had a primary purpose of showing that “we had listened to the client.”

Every time this happened I told them to change the slides, but it took me a while to figure out why. The reason is that there are two ways to show that you’ve listened to someone, and one is much more effective than the other. You can show you’ve listened by:

  1. Repeating back what the other person has said to you.
  2. Taking what they told you, and adding in something that you know to create insight.

The insight route is much more effective. What I realised is that all of the slides that I disliked were of the first type. But after working on them, we were able to change them into the second.

This has important implications for innovation. The first is that connecting what you’ve heard with what you know is inherently more innovative – after all, connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act of innovation.

The second point is more important – it gives us some insight into the idea of listening to customers. Often, when people do focus groups or use other techniques to hear what customers have to say, the customers are expected to simply tell us what they need. Then we can demonstrate that we’ve listened by repeating this back to them in the form of a new product or service.

This is less likely to work than to do the second kind of demonstration – take what they’ve told you, and add it to something unique that you know to create insight. Ultimately, this is the point of concepts like design-driven innovation. They are trying to get us to go beyond simply spitting back what someone tells us.

Once again, connecting ideas is the best way to innovate.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.