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There is one metaphor that perfectly captures one of the biggest challenges of corporate innovation. When a customer buys a 1/4″ drill bit, what is he actually buying? It’s easy to fall into the trap the he’s buying a drill bit. In actuality, he is buying a 1/4″ hole.

Companies have core competencies and areas of expertise. These competencies are the comfort zone of the company and its employees. These are the “knowns” and usually mastered by the company, and the temptation to stay in the comfort zone is a natural human tendency.

Corporate innovation requires that we go from the comfort of the ivory tower to the messiness of the customer domain. We have to move away from what we can do, what we know how to do, and instead flip the paradigm to understand what the customer is trying to accomplish.

It’s a matter of proper order, which will solve so many innovation woes. Instead of inventing a drill bit and trying to find customers who need a hole, start with what the customer is trying to accomplish and invent a tool or technology that can address that need.

In innovation, focus on customer needs not solutions or your capabilities. Always more tempting to stay in comfort zone of the known. But customers buy for a reason and you have to understand their needs.

Needs first, then solutions.

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