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Customers and Society Drive Innovation

By Michael S. Slocum

What drives innovation? The cause-and-effect series of events that form the innovation process is initiated by one of various viewpoints, including the voice of the customer and societal needs.

View A: The Voice of the Customer (VOC)
“We can believe that we know where the world should go. But unless we’re in touch with our customers, our model of the world can diverge from reality. There’s no substitute for innovation, of course, but innovation is no substitute for being in touch, either.”
– Steve Ballmer

“If I asked my customers what they wanted they’d have asked for a faster horse.”
– Henry Ford

The customer is in control in the buying/selling process – determining whether a product (goods or services) is acceptable or a launch failure. Also, the customer decides what to pay for the product, to repeat the purchase, or to recommend it to friends. This type of involvement places the critical power of determining success squarely in the customers’ hands and the providers of goods and services are beholden to them for economic viability. This is not a bad situation as the product ultimately has to provide some benefit to the consumer. The customer may also provide valuable feedback that may be used to develop the next iterative generation of a product. The customer may also provide a set of requirements for one product that overlaps another’s requirement set, presenting the opportunity for a new product that combines dual functions. This is customer-driven hybridization.

Customers may also drive feature transfer. Feature transfer is the phenomenon whereby functionality from one system is added to another system – this provides heterogeneous functionality (like a toaster that is also an AM radio). This is also a type of hybridization – although function specific. Although customers are great at helping to determine incremental changes to foster product improvement, they are typically incapable of identifying discontinuous change. Therefore, innovation and improvement driven by the voice of the customer is tactical in nature and focused on the improvement of the existing.

Innovation (and inventions) based on VOC are critical for the preservation of a business because it enables stability and the generation of financial resources. These resources may then be utilized to fund the innovations that will make future economic viability possible.

View B: Societal Need (SN) – The Voice of Society
“We are always saying to ourselves, ‘We have to innovate.’ We’ve got to come up with that breakthrough. In fact, the way software works…so long as you are using our existing software…you don’t pay us anything at all. So we’re only paid for breakthroughs.”
– Bill Gates

Societal need is a tremendous driver of innovation. Being able to satisfy an unmet societal need is the beginning of a successful business. Therefore, identifying unmet needs is the critical leverage point that needs to be discovered. How are unmet needs discovered? There are various methods of identifying unmet needs – the customer is involved in some of them, but not all. The potential customer (or groups of customers) may be observed performing typical daily activities (kinematics and human factors studies). This type of observation produces insight into the types of benefits and features that may be valuable if a product can be invented that simplifies and/or accelerates the performance of these customer needs. Also, statistics compiled concerning historical customer behavior may be used to predict patterns that may be analyzed to indicate future need states based on extrapolation, interpolation or other models (ethnography). Historically derived patterns of evolution (technology forecasting used in TRIZ) may be leveraged in order to develop a multi-generational product plan. This plan could then represent various paths of evolutionary development and this template of potential could be aligned with observational data to formulate a developmental path forward. Identifying unmet societal needs drives discontinuous and disruptive innovation and is distinctly different than the types of innovation based on the voice of the customer. Innovation based on SN drives the evolution of a business. This is critical because every product presented to the marketplace has a finite profitability period. Therefore, if a company does not create and market new products, there will be no future. Identifying and meeting unmet societal needs is the key to the regeneration of the profitability curve and allows a company to remain profitable ad infinitum.

The Voice of Innovation: Stereophonic Stimuli
Both the voice of the customer and the voice of society are necessary. Each plays a vital role in the unfolding drama of innovation, customer satisfaction and economic success.

About the Author:
Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit