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February 19, 2016

The Essence of Innovation

More Than A Faster Horse

Over the holidays, my wife and I piled the kids into the minivan and drove to Missouri to visit family. It had been nearly seven years since our last visit to the Show Me State, which is just long enough to forget how different from Los Angeles life can be in the Midwest.

One of the reasons we love living in Southern California is the plethora of vegetarian dining options. Yes, there are numerous specialty stores and restaurants here, but even the larger, more mainstream businesses also offer vegetarian fare to cater to our dietary preference.

So imagine the culture shock of dining in one restaurant in Kansas that, literally, offered one vegetable. On the entire menu. It was called the “vegetable of the day” and, in our case, turned out to be green beans. No broccoli. No spinach. Definitely no kale. And, of course, it was meant to be served on the side of the plate next to a large hunk of meat, not as the centerpiece of the meal.

Or how about the restaurant in Albuquerque that decided to enhance my veggie burger with several slabs of bacon? I guess they wanted to ensure the meat-to-vegetable ratio on my plate was more in line with their typical diner’s sensibilities.

The point of this recap is not to preach on the merits of a vegetarian diet nor guilt trip those of you who prefer every meal with a side of bacon. Instead, it is to highlight that these businesses were actually doing something that, on the surface, is quite smart: they are serving up the experience that they believe their customers want.

The only way to survive in an ultra-competitive marketplace is to learn as much as possible about your market – which can be done in numerous ways, from website or data analytics to surveys to customer service, via social media or just good, old fashioned face-to-face – and then use that knowledge to develop a loyal customer base and acquire new, like-minded customers.

However, I suggest it is more important to dig even deeper into the root causes of your customer’s expressed wants and needs. Henry Ford was once thought to have said that if all he did was ask people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse. Now, he could have simply tried to do that and called it a day. But he realized that what they really meant was that they wanted to get from one place to another, faster. By understanding the deeper desire – the purpose beneath the expressed wants and needs – Ford was able to deliver a creative and, arguably, better solution. I say arguably because anyone who has sat in traffic on the 405 might long for the days of horses.

Thinking back to my experience at those two restaurants, and with Ford’s insight in mind, I wonder if they were misunderstanding the deeper desires of the people patronizing their establishment. They conflated a desire to consume good tasting food, and, ultimately, the underlying calories and nutrients, with a desire to consume meat. Perhaps if the restaurants had addressed this more creatively, they could have broadened their customer base by providing solutions that address the purpose of eating, instead of simply delivering what their customers say they want.

After all, no one buys a drill because they want the drill itself. What they want is the hole the drill makes. Likewise, people don’t eat bacon because they have an overwhelming desire to eat a pig. They eat it because they need the protein and it tastes good. So, if you could address that desire in a different, but no less satisfactory way, then your solution might do more than just fill one person’s belly. It might, like Ford, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk before you, revolutionize the world.

So, when thinking about your own products and services, I challenge you to think below the surface, to the greater purpose you serve. What is it that your customers really want? And how can you create something that may or may not look like what they want, but satisfies their hunger all the same?

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