Dev Patnaik has a great metaphor for needs-driven innovation in his Business Week piece Needs Solutions = Innovation:
In the words of one designer at Ford Motor (F), “I keep begging the marketing guys: Don’t tell me you want a bridge. Show me the canyon you want to cross.”
He also has a good example of the different forms of innovation:
Let’s say you’re looking for ways to improve store efficiency, and you observe that the clerk is having trouble getting boxes from a high shelf. You conclude that the clerk needs a ladder. A ladder certainly works, but what if you frame it this way, asking, What does the clerk need to get boxes from a high shelf? A ladder is but one of several possible solutions. Lowering the shelves and rearranging the boxes is another. You may find many more. Reaching a box is a need. Getting a ladder is a solution.
My commentary: a ladder is a technological solution; lowering the shelves and rearranging the boxes is an organizational solution.
We don’t always need technological solutions.
Nor do we necessarily need to solve the immediate problem. One should first ask why we need to cross the canyon. If it is simply to gather firewood, then another solution might be needed. If it is on the road to El Dorado, then let’s think about bridges.
I would also warn against two narrow a view of needs-driven innovation. I’ve long agreed with Prahalad & Hamel that innovation came from “infusing products irresistible functionality or, better yet, creating products that customers need but have not yet even imagined.” But sometimes it takes the creation of something totally new before people can envision how it can be applied to meet yet unimagined needs. Innovation, as Patnaik points out, is a robust interplay of new ideas (technological and non-technological) and needs.
Companies who undertstand this succeed. And countries who gear their policies to that reality prosper. Those who emphasis one part of the equation over another don’t.
This is why we need to insure we have a balanced innovation policy in the US if we are to succeed in the I-Cubed Economy.