Get the people out in the field to improve innovation results

frankmattes Advisory, Thought Leadership

“Getting the people out in the field” is the third cornerstone of our ENGAGE model which shows companies where and how to upgrade their innovation management system in order to improve innovation – and ultimately, business results.

Done right, “Getting the people out in the field” provides many insights that could be the sources for innovations. Additionally, it is a catalyst to make the organization more innovative and adaptive.

Here’s the summary for the quick reader:

Getting people out – Why it matters

Innovations are only valuable if they solve problems that the customer is willing to pay for. So, improving innovation results starts with generating insights about problems worth solving. This insight could be finding a problem that others have missed or perhaps uncovering a potential new solution for a well-understood problem.

But usually, when people are busy doing their day-to-day-job, it is hard to find a time and a space to generate these insights. This space must be provided and given impetus by the leadership team.

In order to increase innovation results, the leadership team needs to arrange resources and a process for capturing valuable insights . Finding these insights requires two things:

  • Firstly, you need to study the customer’s “jobs to be done” deeply. And this is not to ask customers “what do you need” – they may not know or be constrained by current offerings, especially in finding radical solutions. This means you really need to “walk in the customer’s shoes.”
  • Secondly, you need to look for “surprises”. We found that surprises are the catalyst for insights. A surprise is the clue that you have learned something new that might even be a valuable insight – and hence a source of an innovation.

Designing a structured process that sends out large parts of staff into the field and hunt for surprises and insights will have many positive effects.

  • A broad basis of innovation impulses that might lead to actual innovations
  • By meeting people outside of their cubicles, the people sent out into field open up their thinking to new possibilities
  • The process contributes to dismantling the functional silos
  • It is an essential cornerstone for making the whole organization customer-centric.

Three stories illustrate the point

Coles is one of Australia’s largest supermarket chains. Its CEO challenged his directors to buy a week’s worth of groceries for $150. He wanted his team to experience first-hand the cost-of-living crunch that their average customers felt. They would buy a week’s supply that would feed a family of four and they only had 45 minutes, which is the average time a working parent can spend on shopping. The result was that none of the managers passed the test to the approval by “real customers”. “There is nothing more motivating than looking a real customer in the eye and having them tell you that you need to do better,” the CEO said after evaluating the process.

Or take the example of Hindustan Unilever (HUL), one of the most innovative companies according to Forbes Magazine. In a company-wide process of “Getting out in the field”, one of HUL’s packaging engineers was surprised to see that store owners were re-engineering the Tetra Paks so that they could hang them from the ceiling and increasing visibility to passers-by.

Or take the example of one of our customers, a medium-sized machinery company from Germany. When the head of production was visiting his customers and he saw how the machines that he built were used by customers. He noticed that customers were using fixtures for the work-in-progress parts that were obviously acquired from a third party. He suggested to offer custom fixtures, using a 3D printer that would work on the customer’s CAD drawings. This created a new business with substantial margins.

To get the most out of it, a process is required

“Getting the people out in the field” requires a well-structured process  including the necessary skills and tools for the staff. The cornerstones of this process are:

  • A pre-defined set of sites to visit – Customer’s offices and plants, consumer’s homes, retail stores, distribution centers, etc.
  • A system to map and to follow up which staff member visits which of these sites
  • Tools and interview guides for the “people out in the field” (see below)
  • A central database for storing the insights generated
  • A process that ensures that insights are picked up and processed
  • Social recognition mechanisms that reward great insights and keep up motivation and momentum

We have found that this process can’t be set up with one big lift. There will be a lot of scepticism of “why this is necessary” and many requests to be excused. Furthermore, going out into the field will feel unfamiliar – even awkward – for many managers and staff.

We have seen several examples in which this process was built up in three phases:

  • Phase 1 – Awareness. This involves leadership engagement to make the point, to lead by example and to preserve against resistance.
  • Phase 2 – Set up infrastructure and get going. The central database for capturing insights needs to be working and first site visits – typically done by “shadowing” a staff member who is familiar with visiting the selected site (e.g. a sales person for visiting retail stores). When the first insights come in they need to be communicated well in the company so that the value of the overall process becomes apparent.
  • Phase 3 – Embed into the DNA. In the third phase, it should have become natural to “get out in the field”, e.g. by establishing patterns such as “every member of the management team spends at least 2 hours every 2 weeks with a customer” or “managers visit at least 5 customers per month.” At this level, the first insights will already be turned into innovation so that the whole organization sees the value.

Tips for setting up good interviews

“Getting out in the field” with an open mind to understand customer’s needs and unsolved problems may feel a little bit awkward for many staff. So it needs to be prepared – not only by setting up a process (as outlined above) but also by very practical tools and help for the people who are going out.

The spirit of the support needed is captured in the famous quote by Theodore Levitt, “customers don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill – they want a quarter-inch hole”: The support provided should enable people to identify the “quarter-inch hole” moment.

We found it to be very useful to provide easy and handy check questions plus some second-level tools that help people reflect on their field observations.

We usually start – as described above – with the “surprises”:

  • What surprises you?
  • What should we be doing that we are not doing right now?

We also provide guidance on how to conduct conversations out in the field:

  • “The mind is like a magnet – Be careful about the direction in which you point your customer’s attention”
  • Avoid confirmation bias, i.e. asking customers to confirm what you think is the customer’s reality
  • Be curious – emphasize listening to what people are really telling you
  • Check whether you are really listening: (1) Suspending talking about solutions, allow for free-ranging discussions – Get a sense for where the problems that you could solve could be (2) Detect repeat messages – Forming hypotheses, put numbers to them “What are problems and what is the impact?”

Typically, we also provide some hints on how to conduct deep-dives:

  • Focus on the whole customer’s “journey line” to understand how customers complete a task and identify their main pain points (and emotions) along the way
  • Understand the root causes by using the “5 Whys” technique
  • Get facts and figures (“How often does this occur typically?” “How long does it take you to fix it?” “Which tools and experts do you need to solve the problem?”)
  • Build in methodology from the Repertory Grid Technique to provide insight into user perceptions and needs

About innovation.support

innovation.support is an international agency focused on solving the ‘Corporate Innovation Problem™’. To achieve this, we provide consulting services based on proven, best-in-class methodology which in many cases is proprietary. The services are delivered by experienced innovation management specialists and by subject-matter experts.

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