Don't Get Caught in the Innovation Trap

So many of our ideas are built on the thoughts and insights of others. But no matter where they come from, not all ideas stick. Not all ideas generate revenue or increase market share.

We sat casually around a meeting table discussing product innovations. I wanted desperately to come up with something valuable, to provide a meaningful solution, to have that next great idea. So I threw one out there. To my delight, it stuck!

“You’re so creative,” a colleague said.

It took nearly all of my willpower to maintain a poker face. Being recognized as a creative person didn't happen often, but I craved it deeply. My happiness grew quickly, hanging for a moment before feelings of guilt overtook it. 

I felt guilty for being singled out in our group. But more so, I felt guilty because my idea wasn’t creative at all. In fact, my idea was no more than a combination of something I’d heard and something I’d read… two ideas from other people! 

I wasn’t creative; I was just a good listener. Here’s why you should be too. 

The Edison bulb. Far from being innovated for innovation's sake, this product was invented out of a desperate market need and has changed our world forever.

The Edison bulb. Far from being innovated for innovation's sake, this product was invented out of a desperate market need and has changed our world forever.

So why is Apple dominating the hearts and minds of the smartphone and tablet market? Because Apple is listening to precisely what their customers want while Samsung seems to be innovating for innovation's sake. While Apple is designing products that solve problems their customers didn’t even know they had, Samsung is trying to differentiate themselves with interesting features that nobody else has. 

Both Apple and Samsung are innovating, but Apple is listening first, and that's making all the difference. 

Not an Apple fan? No problem. Let’s look at another example. Remember the vacuum suction, hair cutting Flowbee? Flowbee started as a creative solution in search of a customer. Targeting hair stylists and barbers, Flowbee's customers didn’t want to purchase the product for fear that their clients (people getting their haircut) would never come back for their services. 

The inventor, nearly out of cash and with nothing left to do except internalize this feedback, realized he hadn’t listened to his customers. He had innovated without a clear understanding of who’s problem he was solving. 

Now in full listening mode, he understood that his actual customer was you and me, the consumer. Armed with this knowledge, a new audience, and a clearer message, his product went on to sell 2 million products by 2000. 

In the beginning, he innovated without listening and very nearly failed. Only when he listened to his customers was he able to turn his innovation into a viable product.

Lobbing Balls

A mentor of mine once gave me a great analogy. Having spoken far too much in a customer meeting, he took me aside and said, 

“As Quarterback, you don’t just start lobbing balls after the snap. You catch the ball, protect it, and assess the field. Only when you understand what’s happening do you make the play.”

The same goes for business. A great business owner doesn’t just start developing any product that comes to mind. He or she doesn't get caught in the innovation trap, generating idea after idea in hopes that one will stick. A great business owner assesses their market, understands their customers, and listens to their most dire problems. 

Only after seeing the complete picture should the company innovate. At that point, having listened to multiple customers, researched competitors, and studied their market, creative solutions will come naturally and the play can be made – building a targeted product that sells.

Business is About Helping

Business isn’t about having the most creative solution; it’s about helping people. Business is about solving people’s problems with solutions they can afford and features they need. 

This is why we must listen. 

Put yourself out there and hear what your customers are saying, ask them what they need. If you say you don’t have time because you're running too fast just to get product out the door, stop and ask yourself if you have a pulse on what your customers need. 

If you’re spending all your time innovating and not listening, it’s just a matter of time before you’re no longer relevant to them. In fact, if you haven't asked yourself with the last six months what has changed about your customers, your markets, and your industry, you’ve taken your first step towards innovating solutions that nobody needs. 

If you have a product already like the Flowbee inventor, talk to your customers immediately. Ask them what they like and don’t like about it. Then take all that feedback to enhance your product into a solution your customers both love and desperately need to help them through their day.

Don’t get caught in the innovation trap. Listen first. Create and innovate later.

Do you have methods for listening to customers and turning that feedback into innovative products? Please share with us in the comments below!

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About the Author

Michael Mehlberg


Michael Mehlberg helps small businesses owners achieve their goals and live their passion. His approach to technology, corporate strategy, product development, marketing, and sales is both practical and highly effective, and has helped multiple small businesses grow into the company their owners envisioned. Reach out by emailing him at or learn more on our About page.