The Art of Listening: Perpetual Innovation

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True innovation is difficult. If it wasn't, anyone could be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. In INC MagazineMauro Porcini, PepsiCo Chief Design Officer, explains that “nurturing growth and true innovation means taking risks.” The word “risk” invokes thoughts of danger, pitfalls, and fear. However, the most successful companies are constantly innovating, evolving, and upgrading as the market demands

Almost every discussion of innovation mentions Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but I want to discuss an unlikely company that I consider to be a master of successful, successive innovation. Most of us first become familiar with their products in grade school. Fiskars (yes, Fiskars!) created its first pair of iconic orange scissors in 1967 and now, 48 years later, the company still has fresh ideas.

Fiskars' secret: listening to customer feedback when creating new products. How can other companies learn from their success? Let's explore a few simple yet effective strategies for applying customer feedback when innovating.

The “Fiskars” Way 

The first pair of Fiskars' heavy forged steel scissors was created nearly two centuries ago. They were a far cry from the scissors we all have come to know and love. Even though the company's major innovations (left handed scissors, ergonomic orange grip handle, special blade) were made decades ago, Fiskars has yet to become stagnant or content in their success.

In an article for Fast Company, Sarah Kessler explains,

“[Fiskars] has been tweaking the plastic-handled scissor design since it created its first orange pair in 1967.” 

Fiskar's approach is one of constant, and often minor, innovation. In just 2014-15, Fiskars plans to release just under 250 new types of scissors, shears and craft tools; an astronomical amount of new products by most company's standards, but not for Fiskars. 

So, how do they do it? And how can you?

Listen to Your Customers

Whether you are introducing one new prototype or two-hundred, the easiest place to find innovation inspiration is often the most obvious: your customers. Observe your customers on social media, in focus groups, inside your stores or on your website. If your customers are clamoring for a product that offers a special service, see if you can be the company to provide it. It is great that your current product is selling, but if a small alteration could open up a new market space and increase your profits, would you not advocate for that change?

Colin Roberts, an industrial designer at Fiskars, explains one such situation in Fast Company. They introduced a new product that fit a very specific need for fabric cutting, and customers loved it. Soon they started saying,

“You have to make us a bigger one [pair of fabric scissors]. Make us an 8-inch. Make us a 9-inch.”

So, they did! Fiskars started to sell their new “RazorEdge Fabric Shears for Tabletop Cutting” in multiple sizes.

Customers spoke, and Fiskars answered. 

Ask for Outcomes, Not Products

Fiskars' customers asked for a way to cut thicker fabrics in a more efficient manner. They did not ask for a new type of scissors. They needed a specific outcome, not a product. When interacting with your customers and using feedback for innovation, ask for outcomes. Then your research and development teams can create a new product with that outcome in mind. 

In Harvard Business ReviewAnthony W. Ulwick explains,

“Customers should not be trusted to come up with solutions; they aren’t expert or informed enough for that part of the innovation process.”

Their frames of reference and experience are too limited to provide concrete information on innovating solutions. But customers are experts on what they need. Fiskars asked customers for desired outcomes — fabric cutters — and created the best solution — RazorEdge Fabric Shears. 

Do Something Different… But Similar 

After collecting outcomes and forwarding them onto your R&D team, you still have to make sure the new product will sell. As Kessler cautions, 

“[The innovation] needs to look different enough from its predecessors so that people understand what they’re getting for their money, but not so different that they might not recognize it as the familiar tool they’re looking for at the store.”

The perfect amount of innovation creates just enough intrigue while also retaining brand awareness and reputability. 

Ensure Excellence

The concept of an innovation is just the beginning. The creation phase for Fiskars' products is daunting. It includes 30 rounds in a “foam stage,” 10 or so on a 3-D printer, and 2 or 3 sample manufactured versions. Kessler explains,

“During that process, they’re tested consistently; both among test users like the sewing guild (the seamstresses told Roberts, for instance, that the first version of tabletop cutting shears he initially brought was useless unless it was bigger) and in more organized venues [such as test groups].”

This model, involving constant trials with target customers, ensures a product's success once it is released. 

Fiskars' scissors are not only a model of consistency but also a model for innovation. The company seeks out customers opinions and uses that feedback to constantly improve their products. These small changes allow them to branch into new markets, increasing brand awareness and profitability. Focus your innovation efforts on your customers' desired outcomes. Allow them to assist your R&D teams when creating the next great product that will catapult your company to the top!

Have innovation strategies of your own? Share them by tweeting @EidsonPartners!

(Image source: fiskars.com)

2 thoughts on “The Art of Listening: Perpetual Innovation

  1. Pingback: Two Types of Customers Who Are Pivotal to Your Product’s Launch | Eidson & Partners

  2. Pingback: Rust-Oleum: Where Does Innovation Come From? | Eidson & Partners

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