If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is a user-induced innovation process, you will reap more incremental innovations. Doesn’t that sound counterintuitive? Isn’t it the big promise of Design Thinking & Co. that you will stumble upon real innovation, if you simply start with the user fist?! Just recently, I attended an innovation workshop that was announced as a high level meeting of CDOs, senior innovation managers and comparable positions with the aim of finding ways to collaborate. And indeed, we had around 30 really experienced people in a fancy room (startup style). So far so good. Unfortunately, it turned out to be just another Design Thinking workshop (although in disguise by using a different name 😉 ). The objective was to come up with innovative business ideas for problems presented by different corporates from the logistics industry. And it turned out to be a waste of time.

Why is that?

  1. Approachability of the user without anything at hand (no prototype, no pitch deck, etc.) is key for an user-induced approach. So instead of talking to the relevant target groups, you end up with the most convenient one. Ourselves in this case.
  2. Although we conducted explorative interviews, they were carried out poorly and thus no valuable insights could be derived.
  3. Once we boiled down a problem, the ideation session resulted in another “Uberization of x”, since all these experienced people weren’t ware of new (technological) means to solve a given problem. So, our business idea was just another try to solve the last mile issue with the means of today. 

While writing these lines, I can already feel the emotions running high of all the Design Thinking experts out there (guys, I also own a HPI certificate, although I would not deem myself as a senior expert in that specific methodology). So this is important now: I do not want to blame any user-induced innovation methodology per se. Especially Design Thinking and the Lean Startup approach brought actual value to modern innovation process by involving users / customers in the process, focusing on fast learning loops and encouraging the visualization of ideas as a communication vehicle. But like any methodology it has strengths and weaknesses. And with this article, I would like to put emphasis on the latter.

Although in theory user-induced innovation processes sound like the perfect approach, in practice I have observed the following over the recent years when working with corporates, startups, or colleagues:

  1. The idea of immersive techniques for achieving a deeper understanding of the user are too hard to apply in B2B contexts. I know there are some rare cases, but in combination with my next point – bad execution – it simply doesn’t work or consumes too much time to get to actionable insights.
  2. Perfect execution is very, very hard to do. Take explorative interviews as an example. You need hundreds of these interviews to become a good investigative journalist, or perfect as a detective at conducting hearings. Most people trying to apply explorative customer interviews in their innovation processes are just inexperienced at it. And thus they are bad quality interviews revealing nothing apart from common knowledge. Real experts are very, very rare.
  3. And this is my most important point: It creates a mindset of de-risking, the user knows it all and bold visions do not count. Not in theory, but in practice. And this leads to more incremental innovations.

Europe suffers from a lack of bold ideas. Period. Because Europeans love to de-risk everything, they are inclined to harness user-induced innovation processes as a mean to that. I vividly remember an innovation conference in Munich with a presentation of two guys on “the 0% failure rate innovation process”. The idea as such is ridiculous and it shows a typical mindset of European engineering companies. Yet even more harmful, Europeans forgot to rely on the strengths of technology-induced innovation processes. As perfectly described by Peter in his blog post, tech push can be as powerful as Design Thinking & Co. It is a common misunderstanding that market pull is superior to tech push. The beauty of tech push is two-fold: a) by the use of new means you can address given problems with new means and thereby unlock a potential of real innovations (the fire, the engine, the internet) and b) it creates a mindset of new possibilities and bold visions. In practice, it is then key to not forget to involve the user at the right point amidst the innovation process. Or put differently: the combination of user-centricity AND new technologies has the power of reaching zero hunger, curing diseases, stopping climate change, or finding solutions for the future of mobility. 

The next Daimlers, Volkswagens, Renaults, Peugeots, Seats, Fiats and Ferraris might be air taxi companies. The next DHLs, DPDs, TNTs, Royal Mails might be operating with drones, autonomous cars, or via beaming stuff. Who knows? But we need people to take this bold step: making use of new technologies to solve all the well-know problems out there. And just as the iPhone taught us, new product categories simply come out of nowhere for the user and will hardly be revealed by talking to the user today. From my opinion, we won’t solve the last mile issue of logistics without imagining and then building a new reality by harnessing new means.

How do we get from the current operating system that is tailored to incremental innovations towards an operating system that paves the way for a new generation of entrepreneurs and high-tech innovators, such as Werner von Siemens, Robert Bosch, Gottlieb Daimler and others? We need two things:

  1. An operating system for innovation processes that is not solely tailored to user-induced innovation. During the recent years these innovation methodologies have been dominantly taught at business schools, universities and all the big corporates. We need to get beyond that and also install systems tailored to technology-induced innovation.
  2. We need people with bold visions who are either researchers, or scientists themselves and are courageous enough to become entrepreneurs, or link the entrepreneurial talent as well as our serial entrepreneurs to the Research and Technology Organisations (RTO). In Europe, we must invest more into technology development, but at the same time even more into technology transfer. Whereas EUR 100b+ / year was the public R&D spending in 2017 in Europe (EU28), only about EUR 200m / year was spent on tech transfer by the technology transfer funds initiated by the EIF. And in addition, the startup ecosystems are not yet linked to the RTOs on a larger scale. Instead, RTOs are dominantly trying to transfer to the most risk-avers = the successful companies of TODAY. I had the chance to talk to Bob Langer from MIT and he confirmed that many of the innovations that have been backed by his labs wouldn’t have reached the market, if he had tried to sell them to incumbents first.

Let me close with the pleading that we need an awakening of high-tech ventures in Europe. A movement that combines tech push with market pull, bold visions with our most fundamental challenges and the mindset of an entrepreneur with that of a researcher.

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