ECIA Coverage: Let Your Customers Innovate

If your engineering team is looking for fresh, creative ideas, you may need to look no further than your customers.

“It’s never a mistake to train engineers in creativity,” noted George Land, author of Grow or Die, during an interview with Design News at the Electronic Components Industry Association (ECIA) conference in Chicago. “But you have to train the customers in creativity, too. You have to make them part of the process. You have to let them be able to dream.”

Land, founder of FarSight Group and consultant to hundreds of corporations, said that customers can provide a wealth of innovation and creativity if they are trained properly. If they are stimulated to “get as wild and dreamy as possible,” they can provide a vision of future products that might not otherwise be available, he said.

“In a typical customer interview, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear,” Land said. “But you have to give them permission to say, ‘This is what I would really like.’ “

Land cited examples of projects with auto industry clients in which as many as six customer groups, each numbering about 20 people, were encouraged to dream up product features. Using a process called “deep needs analysis,” the customers were then led through a “forced choice” process to determine which of the features were most important to them. In those processes, Land said, the key is to empower the customers to reach a clear set of conclusions.

“The idea is to get the customer to open up and dream on their own,” Land said. “You don’t want someone saying, ‘Here is what I think the customers want.’ You want the customers to do their own analysis.”

Land cited three rules of thumb for engineering teams that want to boost their innovation and creativity.

1. Identify a need. Engineering teams need to make sure they apply their innovation to problems that customers find compelling, even if the solution to those problems may seem like a fantasy. “Once you know what the need is, you can put all your innovation assets up against it,” Land said.

2. Create multi-disciplinary teams. Even if you don’t like “the suits” in the finance and marketing departments, you will need their input for innovation, Land said. Innovation teams must include the front office, as well the industrial designers, manufacturing people, distributors, customers, and assembly line workers. “The problem is that we all build a bunch of assumptions that lock us into a way of thinking,” he said. “Getting out of that requires people who don’t know anything about the problem and who can bring new viewpoints.”

3. Develop strong criteria for choosing the innovations. All projects have criteria that teams can’t control. Internally, a proposed idea may not match a company’s manufacturing expertise or its sales capabilities. Externally, it may not be consistent with government or industry regulations. Innovation teams must look at the pros and cons of such criteria and ask: Why should we build this product? Why shouldn’t we? “One of the most important places to do your creative thinking is around the criteria,” Land said. “Often people don’t do that. Then, later on, they end up running into problems they could have foreseen.”