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To innovate, skip focus groups

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Some managers assume the best way to spur innovation is to convene a brainstorming meeting or focus group of customers. But such groups can block creativity even as they try to promote it.

When you ask a sampling of employees (or end-users of your product or service) to come up with breakthrough ideas, they probably will respond by pointing out failings in the status quo. They will list what's wrong: poor quality controls, inconsistent performance, etc.

Collecting data on how you can improve your existing operation has its value. But it's not going to pave the way for bold innovation.

In focus groups, "most people concentrate on what they think they have been assigned to think about," writes Jay Elliot and William Simon in The Steve Jobs Way. "They think they've been assigned to focus on what their experience has been. That's the wrong focus. What you need are people who focus on what their experience could be."

The authors add that Steve Jobs dislikes focus groups when designing new products. The CEO of Apple believes that people who give their opinions might offer incremental improvements. But they won't "give you ideas for dramatically new products that are game changers," they write.

To innovate, look beyond group feedback and take a step back. Tap your imagination. Sweep away restrictive rules and assumptions so that you adopt a fresh outlook. In the early going, don't let practical considerations interfere with your free-flowing thinking. Loosen up and think ahead rather than dwelling on past designs, prototypes or directives.

Lessons Learned

To produce true innovation, don't rely on countless brainstorming meetings. As an alternative, take these steps:

Ask employees for "one magic wish." Request that each employee write a short answer to this question, "If you had one magic wish for us to develop a new product/service, what would it be?"

Enlist the kids. Collect feedback from children on how you can revolutionize what you make or sell. Reduce your creative challenge to a series of simple questions and instruct employees to get answers from their youngsters at home. Then share the responses and use them as a springboard to experiment with new approaches or designs.

Sit with a customer. Observe people using your product or service. Sit quietly and watch how they interact with it. By learning what excites and frustrates them, you can come away with ideas on how to deliver a more compelling customer experience.

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