A.G. Lafley vs. Steve Jobs

Usually the question comes right after I tell an audience that I put former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley on my "Innovation Mount Rushmore" as a reminder of the importance of investing time and energy to understand the target market.

"But how do you square that with Steve Jobs?" an intrepid audience member asks. "After all, Jobs said, 'It isn't the customer's job to know what they want.'"

It feels like a classic battle — the scientific approach of a company that launches 80 market research studies a day versus the intuitive touch of the iconic innovator of our time.

But it's a false comparison. Both approaches rest on the belief that you need to understand your customers better than they know themselves so you can predict what they want without having to ask them to articulate what they want.

Sometimes it is completely appropriate to follow the simple approach of asking customers what they want. As Kevin McFarthing noted in a recent blog post, in more mature markets directive questions can provide useful input. Further, MIT professor Eric von Hippel's research shows how in some industries so-called lead users can be vital guides to future innovation opportunities.

However, in the uncertain circumstances that innovators searching for new growth typically encounter, it pays to be wary of the value of asking customers what they want. Customers will happily tell you what they think they want (or what they think you want to hear), but it might not be what they actually want or need. Remember — even the nicest, most honest customers can be cold-blooded liars when they sincerely say they will buy or do what they won't. Further, in some industries customers lack technological sophistication to know what is or is not feasible, limiting the usefulness of their guidance.

In these circumstances it is tempting to rely on intuition. Be careful, however, of the classic trap of mistaking your own views for the market's views. I've seen many entrepreneurs who have developed elegant solutions to things that matter a great deal to them — and really to no one else. Intuition grounded by years of in-market experience should always be listened to carefully, but it pays to augment even the best intuition with focused research.

Research should primarily focus on understanding the problems customers can't adequately solve today (what Innosight calls "jobs to be done"). From my experience helping companies and entrepreneurs build businesses I have come to believe two simple rules of thumb:

  1. It's easier to shift spending than it is to create it.

  2. Where people send their time reflects their priorities better than what they say.

As such, the biggest signal that you've hit on something worth probing is when you find customers spending a lot of time or money on clearly inadequate solutions.

Lafley himself hit on one of these kinds of insights when he was a young brand manager at P&G. Customers regularly rated the packaging of Tide's laundry detergent as "excellent." Then why, Lafley wondered, did he never see a customer open a package by hand, relying instead on scissors or nail files? It turned out that customers didn't want to risk breaking their nails on the so-called excellent packaging. Score one for first-hand observation.

Insights that turn into innovation opportunities can come from intuition, science, or sheer randomness. Increase the odds of success by seeking to understand customers better than they understand themselves. It's worth the effort.

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