Keeping an "Eye" on Innovation

Innovation is not necessarily limited to new technologies or new products. Today, companies are touted as innovative for reinventing business models, building entirely new markets, or looking through a different lens to creatively meet customer needs.

Employees are an important source of creative ideas. Not just those who work in central R&D, but anyone in the organization who generates an idea that can deliver value.  Our employees see potential problems in the trenches, which ultimately yield opportunities for innovation in products, processes or services. To foster an innovative culture, we first need a fertile environment that encourages people to think in creative and unconventional ways, and resist the strict process standardization borne out of cost-cutting measures.  Then we need to encourage awareness and widespread empathy for the people we serve — our clients and customers.

Encouraging employees to connect with customers isn’t about conducting market research or distributing a customer survey. It’s about seeing the world through their eyes — empathizing with them. By observing what customers do and listening to what they say, and even more importantly recognizing what they don’t say, our employees  begin to “see” what our customers see, think the way they think, recognize what they need, and anticipate what they want.

In the late 80s, Harley-Davidson Inc. was in danger of losing substantial market share to Japanese motorcycle manufacturers. Built and sold for a fraction of the cost, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki bikes created a crushing threat to Harley-Davidson. This wake-up call forced Harley-Davidson to re-think their business model simply to survive.

They began sending employees to bike rallies — to ride with the riders, talk with them face-to-face, bond with them, and see the motorcycle through the riders’ eyes.  After “seeing” what the riders wanted in a motorcycle, engineers redesigned the Harley, and sales people took trailers full of motorcycles to bike rallies offering 15-mile test rides to anyone wishing to try one of these American-made bikes. The effect was dramatic. Employees on the front line understood their customers were looking for an experience, a sense of freedom and individuality uniquely found in riding a motorcycle. They changed the focus of their messaging from quality workmanship to the passion and dream of owning a bike. They strengthened relationships with dealers and created the world’s largest motorcycle community — the Harley-Davidson Owner’s Group (HOG). Today, with over 4 million members, the HOG family includes everyone from Harley-Davidson’s own corporate officers to the newest rider/owner – all bonded by the culture they helped create.

History tells the rest of the story. Harley’s greatest success began in the late 80s and sustained strongly through the mid-2000s. While other American car companies were losing billions of dollars, Harley-Davidson gained a stronghold on the motorcycle industry, inspiring passion in motorcycle enthusiasts and extending its target audience to every person desiring freedom and individuality.

Seeing the world through our customers’ eyes gives us confidence and inspiration to generate new ideas that make an impact. … . At PwC, our approach to innovation includes programs that maximize our interaction with clients, and techniques that help our people “see” business issues through the client’s eyes and innovate based on their needs.  We have discovered that cultivating a culture of widespread empathy for our clients accelerates our journey to innovate…Do you see the world through your customers’ eyes?

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