Imagine you are a genius. Well, perhaps you don’t have to imagine because you are actually a genius, but anyway… You are a genius, and you come up with a great idea for a product. An idea so great, so new, so spellbindingly different to anything that anyone has encountered before, that you think you are on to an absolute bona fide winner. You beaver away in your workshop or laboratory (or perhaps underground lair if you are an evil genius) and you come up with a prototype of your product. Immediately you rush out into the street and show your newly invented flying machine to the first passer-by you meet.
Now imagine you are a reasonably skilled and intelligent person with a certain amount of creativity, but certainly not a genius. You don’t really have any great, new ideas that are spellbindingly different to anything that anyone has encountered before. So you decide to go up to the local pub and ask if anyone has got any problems they need solving. Bob says (all pubs have a Bob) “I would like to go to Rome. I’ve heard they’ve got lots of cool old stuff there and 200 flavours of ice-cream. But… I don’t like all that travelling – it’s uncomfortable and boring going all that way on a train, you should make something to make it more comfortable and interesting”. Well that gets the old cogs whirring, and you beaver away in your workshop or laboratory and you come up with a prototype of your product. Immediately you rush back to Bob with your newly invented musical storytelling cushion. Bob is as pleased as punch and has a lovely trip to Rome with plenty of ice-cream consumed.
It’s really great you came up with the musical storytelling cushion. Because you carried out some research, tested it out on some users, made some improvements, and now you have a great product that is going to be very successful. Well done. The problem is, you missed the opportunity to invent the aeroplane. Basically, Bob was never going to be able to think of that, and if you had suggested the idea to him, Bob was going to tell you that the idea of being strapped inside a metal tube that goes hurtling through mid-air at hundreds of miles per hour was frankly ludicrous and actually quite dangerous. No thank you, musical storytelling cushion for me please, says Bob.
But then on the other hand, as a genius, the aeroplane was the 89th different prototype you had taken running into the street to show a passer-by, proclaiming it to be your great, new, spellbinding idea. The first 88 concepts you had were complete bunkum to be honest, and utter flops, so perhaps asking Bob may have helped guide your ideas after all. It is a bit expensive and risky, all this humouring of random geniuses isn’t it?
A silly story, but if we rely just on giving people what they think they want, we risk having no innovation at all, or at least taking a lot of small incremental steps to get to the great ideas of the future, rather than the great step-changes we see with true innovation. But without research, we risk creating quite a lot of useless or unusable things too, and missing out on the refinements and improvements to our big ideas that come with maturity.