Last Wed I had the privilege of giving a talk at IBM to about 250 software professional. The topic was fostering innovation. If there is a mantra of the modern corporate workplace it’s probably “Listen to your customers”. We’ve all seen how companies falter when they try to dictate to their markets rather than listen to them. However, I truly believe that listening to customers is a cataclysmic error. By cataclysmic I mean an error so profound it can put you out of business. Ok, I’m being provocative, to get your attention. More truthfully, there are times you really need to pay attention to what your customers ar telling you (failure to do so may put you out of business), and there are times when you shouldn’t (because doing so may put you out of business).
Here’s why. Markets are all about supply and demand. They demand products and services to solve their needs. When people need food they create demand for groceries. When companies need data management they create a need for database software. Companies need to listen to their customers to understand those needs, so we can supply solutions they’ll be interested in consuming. The problem, and it’s a serious one, comes when we extend that listening solutions. The market provides demand, it is not designed to provide innovation. That’s our job as engineering companies. When we listen to our customers’ ideas about how their problem should be solved it often cripples our potential for dreaming up a more creative and potentially superior solution. Henry Ford was the founder of the Ford Motor Company and the father of the modern assembly line and industrial automation. He famously said “If I’d have listened to my customers, I’d have given them a faster horse!”. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once made a similar point, saying: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
After my IBM talk someone asked me if I really meant we shouldn’t listen to customer ideas about how to solve their problems. Of course it’s always worth listening, and sometimes what customer think they want really is the ideal solution. But if you stop at listening, and never get to dreaming, you’ll deprive yourself of all the real moments of innovation that can help change the world and drive successful new business. Although there are exceptions, as a rule if you are only building and doing what the market suggests you do, you’re going to be a follower, not an innovator.
So, my advice is this: Listen to your customers o and requirements. Do that with a passion. When it comes to finding solutions, consider their input as just that – input.