Advice to Innovators: Know What Urgent Problem You’re Uniquely Solving

Over the years I have advised many entrepreneurs, worked with a lot of consultants, and coached executives. All three groups repeatedly make the same mistake: They try to introduce ‘solutions’ that are really interesting, quite feasible, and well within their area of competency, but which fail to uniquely solve an urgent problem (in the eyes of whoever is paying for it).

It is easy to get entranced by what’s possible, especially when new technology is making things possible now that were impossible even a decade ago. I know of many entrepreneurs who have invested everything they have to develop an offering that is fascinating, but which has no market — because customers spend almost all their money on products and services that they think meet urgent needs. The late-night infomercials are full of such intriguing but unneeded offerings, as are the catalogues of high-tech gizmos that you often find in the seat pocket in front of you on airplanes. There’s a reason these gizmos are “not sold in stores” — because once you see them, you realize you don’t really need them, so you pass them over and go back to shopping for the needs that caused you to drive to the store in the first place.

I’ve written before about the difference between needs, wants, and nice-to-have’s. We usually spend our disposable income on them in that order — needs first, then wants, then nice-to-haves. If the wants (and sometimes even the nice-to-haves) are cheap enough, however (like almost everything in the infomercials, gizmo catalogues and ‘dollar’ stores) we may buy them before we buy a more expensive need — that’s especially true, alas, for the poor, who otherwise would probably never buy wants or nice-to-haves at all. The purpose of advertising (especially in infomercials and gizmo catalogues) is to move a nice-to-have in the customer’s mind up to a want or even a need, and that advertising has been finely honed to do that. Generally, after the fact, we regret such purchases (both because they generally aren’t as good as advertised, and because they precluded us from buying something we needed).

Unless you’re willing to resort to such advertising hype, and burn a lot of bridges behind you, you need to focus on offering products and services that meet real needs. And if you’re wise, you’ll focus on urgent needs before important ones, because to most of us, there is always tomorrow to look after that important need, while the urgent need must be addressed today. No logic there, just human nature. The discipline of knowledge management, for example, can provide many resources that are important and nice-to-have, but the solutions that traditional KM have produced are, for the most part, neither urgent nor strongly needed: The principal method by which people share information is the same as it was before KM came along — face-to-face conversations and telephone calls. The late Peter Drucker told us, decades ago, what the urgent need for KM really was: Improving the productivity of front-line “knowledge-workers” — those of us who make a living because of what we know better than anyone else. That urgent need remains largely unmet, which is why, in my opinion, KM is still alive ten years later despite its disappointing results, and also why there is such recent interest in Personal Knowledge Management, which could more effectively address that urgent, unmet need.

A lot of consultants (including me) make their living helping their customers become more innovative. ‘Being an innovative company’ is another nice-to-have, or perhaps want, usually mentioned in the corporate mission statement (which means it is important) but rarely connected to significant current-year programs (which means it is not urgent). The main customers of innovation consultants are businesses that are obviously in trouble (though, alas, that sense of urgency often comes too late) and businesses whose executives have the prescience to realize that they will be in trouble soon unless they become more innovative now (and such prescience is rare, and takes a great deal of courage).

There is a propensity of inventors, and corporate R&D departments, to devise new products and services that are incremental to those that have already proved themselves in the market. Most of what the corporate world calls innovations are in fact sequels, ‘new and improved’ variations (‘upgrades’), knock-offs, redesigns, new flavours, imitations and spinoffs of existing successful products. They rarely provide significant value above and beyond the original, but they are usually cheap and low-risk to make, so they are often profitable. Much of the struggling, customer-defying entertainment ‘industry’ is based on watching for breakaway successes (usually produced by more entrepreneurial companies) and copying them, and then producing formulaic sequels of them. Apple Computer prides itself on being ‘second movers’ in its markets — they watch for truly innovative products made by companies that lack the resources to really penetrate the market, and, before viral marketing can take off, Apple refines, redesigns and improves on the low-cost, utilitarian, garage-built original, and gets the entire Apple buzz machine working to scoop the market from the brave entrepreneur. In much of this troubled world, being cool has become a need, and in the attention-deficit economy, simple, elegant functionality is a need. No one meets these two needs better than Apple. Aspiring innovators have much to learn from their example.

A common mistake of entrepreneurs researching the market for an innovative idea is to show so much enthusiasm for the product while talking to prospective customers that the customers say they want or need it when they really don’t. A related mistake is to anticipate the market for an idea before it arrives — to produce something before the market is ready for it. If you know there will be a need, but aren’t big enough to create the need today through buzz marketing, the best approach is to watch the market closely and wait until it catches up, before launching your product.

Executives are often rewarded — by shareholders and directors — for avoiding risk, and hence for not needing to be innovative. One executive recently told me “Show me a company that claims it has to be innovative to survive, and I’ll show you a company in trouble”. What is urgent to CEOs today is minimizing risk and continuously slashing costs to sustain the double-digit annual profit growth that shareholders have come to demand to support today’s high P/E ratios. Their new revenues come from greater global market penetration, incremental ‘sequel’ product offerings, planned obsolescence and buying up competitors — not from risky, innovative new products.

Probably the hardest part of the needed-urgent-unique equation is making your product or service truly unique. Every company claims its products, processes and services are unique, but that uniqueness is rarely recognized in the marketplace. The most notable way many large companies use to try to be unique is through design. It’s not very courageous, but it is a very sensible strategy. Design is really the only way American car companies, for example, really differentiate themselves, while the Japanese car-makers have differentiated themselves from American car-makers (though not from each other) through better quality. In that industry, it’s pretty clear which differentiation strategy customers prefer.

There are many ways a company can differentiate itself — and stand out as unique. It generally entails either doing something different, or differently, from competitors. Better design is one way. Adding needed functionality but avoiding complicating, unneeded functionality (like 90% of the ‘nice-to-haves’ in most cell phones) is another. Differentiating on price is a third way, provided you have a cost advantage that will allow you to win a ‘price war’. Differentiating on product or service quality or speedy service is a fourth. And with all of today’s bewildering new technologies, making your product or service easier to use or easier to buy is another alternative. I’ve described other differentiation strategies in previous articles.

The decision chart at the top of this page can tell you whether it’s time to charge ahead with your innovative idea, or whether instead you should wait — for the market to realize it needs your idea, for that need to become urgent and not just important, and/or for your own differentiation strategy to evolve to the point the market sees youroffering as truly unique.

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9 Responses to Advice to Innovators: Know What Urgent Problem You’re Uniquely Solving

  1. The focus on needs is very well placed. Everything that truly works for people is focused on meeting needs. In fact that may be the most innovative offering a consultant has!

  2. Dave Smith says:

    Seeing the flow chart underneath the site heading “How To Save The World” brings focus on the “Can you create urgency” box as the most frustrating aspect of trying to innovate solutions to the biggest problems of all: climate change and renewable energy and the lifestyle changes that are required. I have been sometimes too far in front of the cutting edge, looking too far ahead quaking in my boots, pointing into the distance and saying “look what is coming” and finding only shaking heads and apathy and the obvious solutions not fundable. How do we create a sense of urgency when it seems so obvious to some of us that if we only had taken steps years ago, or took steps now, we would have a much better chance of heading off disaster? How is it so easy for some to create a climate of perpetual fear with no solutions, while others of us can’t figure out how to create a climate of urgency in order to solve the problems?Solving that would indeed be innovative.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Chris: It’s interesting that many companies have no idea what their customers’ needs are — my partner and I are teaching Cultural Anthropology techniques to our clients so they can observe customers and learn what they really need. Amazingly simple and very effective!Dave: I didn’t want to get too far into the issues of morality in this post (it was long enough already!) but it’s true that advertising can make people believe they need what they don’t, and dictators and corporate giants can use lies to create a false sense of urgency. I’m not an ends-justify-the-means kind of guy (not yet, anyway), so I don’t want to resort to those kind of tactics to make the case for change. All we can do is set a good example, and show people the way, as you are doing already.

  4. Raging Bee says:

    Now you’re sounding like a certain pointy-haired boss: “Try identifying the problem, and then solving it!”My morale is soaring!

  5. Mark Matchen says:

    Chris says, “Everything that truly works for people is focused on meeting needs”. I disagree. That’s largely true, but not true of everything, unless you so expand the meaning of “needs” as to make it meaningless. Music “truly works” for me. So does theatre, my bike (which is an optional alternative to walking or driving) and my wonderful doctor, who is a great distance away from me, and is therefore a major inconvenience. I don’t “need” her – there are closer doctors. But our relationship is worth a lot to me; it “truly works” for me.Conversation always gets wierd when Apple is the subject. Dave says, “in the attention-deficit economy, simple, elegant functionality is a need”. Why does simple, elegant functionality relate to attention-deficit? I’d suggest the opposite: attention-deficit leads to Buicks and Oldsmobiles and dim, awkward elevator buttons and Microsoft Windows. Hyper-attentiveness leads to the demand for elegance and beauty in all that surrounds us.

  6. I think you’re proving my point without stretching the meaning too far. What you are saying is that you have needs deeper than the surface objects that meet those needs. And so you have a need for flow (if you area music maker, like I am) or for fitness and contribution to ecological sustainability or, in the case of your doctor, your need for relationship is what is important. I don’t even need a doctor myself, but I do have a need for people I can trust when things go wrong with my body. The emphasis on needs is important because unmet needs can result in conflict or suffering without the cause being apparent. You could just as easily get through life with out music, driving to work and seeing a doctor you didn’t care about, but your life would be less rich, and, if the unmet needs were significant enough, you might even become depressed. For more on this, Non-Violent Communication is a useful place to start. There is a wiki about that here:

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Mark/Chris: Excellent comments, thanks. Especially appreciate that we avoided a semantic argument on “what is a need”!

  8. says:

    wow…Uniqueness is the first of 6 USIT solution techniques. Uniqueness seemed to me to be the final polishing or refining of focus on the relevant problem.

  9. Will says:

    Fantastic post! This is the type of knowledge that I need and/or seriously want.

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