A few months ago, thousands of car enthusiasts converged in Richmond, Ind., to celebrate the centennial of the Ford Model T. In the decades after 1908, the Model T was produced with no frills to provide affordable transportation to the masses. Buyers could add extras (like a windshield!) or take the basic model.
Yet savvy drivers figured out how to save money. They bought the bare-bones Model T and then tinkered with it on their own. For example, some converted the vehicle into a tow truck or racing coupe.
Indeed, the first wave of Model T purchasers devised features and uses for the car that Henry Ford could never have dreamed up. They were ahead of their time.
Today,professors are beginning to study "user innovation" as a vital ingredient of commercial creativity. The premise is that users (customers), not manufacturers, are best equipped to take an off-the-shelf product and modify it to more effectively satisfy their needs.
"User innovation has been widespread historically, but it is gaining speed and momentum because of the Internet," said Sonali Shah, an assistant professor at the University of Washington business school, in The New York Times. Open-source software offers a vivid illustration of how a company or individual that produces a new application can invite others to tweak it to improve its function and market viability.
If you haven't already, hop on the user-innovation bandwagon. No matter what product or service your organization provides, make it easy for customers to stage experiments to enhance your offerings. If you sell auto insurance, for instance, host focus groups where policyholders propose ways you can expand your coverage and offer more appealing options.
Whether you sell finished products or raw materials, create a customer advisory board comprising your most loyal or influential buyers. Urge them to tinker with your product design or manufacturing processes. Their suggestions may be driven by their own self-interest, but you can benefit by cutting costs and boosting internal efficiency.