Weblogs (or blogs) are quite the Internet rage, but it’s not easy to find good ones created for managers. Freek Vermeulen’s blog (http://freekvermeulen.blogspot.com/) aims to attract readers to quick musings about business and strategy. Some edited highlights of his first postings follow, and we’ll be eagerly awaiting his future thoughts.
Some time ago, I interviewed a guy called Farooq Chaudhry, a founder and producer of the Akram Khan Dance Company, which is a small but extremely innovative (and extremely successful) contemporary dance company. Farooq had several interesting things to say about creating an organization that excels in delivering continuing, successful innovation. One of them stuck to my mind: “In order to be truly innovative, you have to forget about your customer.”
What? I don’t know much about marketing (and would prefer to keep it that way), but don’t these people always go on and on about “customerfocus”, “client-driven innovation”, “the customer always comes first”, and so on? So I asked, “Farooq, do you perhaps mean that you should only have the customer in the back of your mind?” “No, no, I mean, customers – just forget about them altogether”. Ok… what (on earth!) did Farooq Chaudhry mean? After all, this is one of the most innovative companies of its kind, since...well, like ever?
According to him, if you want to be truly innovative, you have to purposely not try to give the customer what he wants. Because, as he argued, if you set out to develop what you think the customer will like, you end up satisfying existing needs and tastes; you follow the customer rather than lead the customer. True innovation, according to him, is about changing the tastes of customers and giving them something that they have never seen or even imagined before.
Once upon a time, there was a plumber, named Geoffrey Ward, who lived in London. One day a local government official told him he would have to vacate his workshop and office because it was located in an area reserved as a retail zone.
Geoffrey decided to place an old, slightly exoticlooking, artistically shaped radiator – which he had removed for a client because it was broken – in the window of his workshop, just to make it look like a shop. Yet, in the following days and weeks, people kept knocking on this door asking whether they could buy that funny-shaped radiator. Not for long, Geoffrey realized that he could have made quite a lot of money had he been able to sell such a “designer radiator” and decided to change professions.
This was how the company Bisque, who produce and distribute designer radiators, was founded. Luck you say? Of course; but, as said before, many people don’t take advantage of luck even when it is staring them into the face. Geoffrey did. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, called it “strategic recognition capacity”. He could have said “know it when you got lucky” (but I’m sure you agree that that wouldn’t have sounded as fancy). Intel, which of course became one of the most successful companies ever by producing microprocessors, also got lucky. In the early 1980s, they were working on microprocessors when they did not have a clue what they would be able to use them for. They even made a list of potential applications – which had anything on it ranging from handheld calculators to lampposts. Yep, lamp-posts.
What was not on its list was: the computer. It was not until IBM kept persistently knocking on their door that they said “All right then, you can put our product in this thing you call a PC”. Yet, was this all down to luck? Of course not, Andrew Grove and his partners recognized the opportunity when it came knocking on their door (in the shape of Big Blue’s rather sizeable fist). But there’s more to it. “Fortune favours the prepared mind,” Louis Pasteur famously said. He got lucky several times, making important yet serendipitous discoveries (such as a rabies vaccine).