Understanding the Customer Journey is the key to innovating in an ecosystem

evolving-innovation-a-new-formPaul and I have been exploring the interrelationships between innovation, ecosystems and platforms for a few weeks now.

Hopefully we’ve made the point that innovators must expand their horizons, because increasingly customers don’t want or need stand alone, discrete products as much as they want integrated, seamless, holistic solutions.

In fact I think we can easily predict that moderately interesting new innovations that integrate with existing ecosystems and platforms dominate disruptive new products that ignore ecosystems and platforms.

Why?  Customers don’t want to give up all that they have invested in the totality of their use of a solution or the experience when using the solution.  Even if the disruptive product or service delivers outsized benefits, if it causes the rest of the customers’ experience to suffer or degrade, many will choose to remain on a more integrated solution.

There’s a lot here to unpack.

For years we’ve divided the innovation world into three segments:  incremental, breakthrough and disruptive, and many innovators have argued that companies simply don’t do “enough” disruptive innovation, whatever that is, depending on your definition.  Now it appears Paul and I are arguing against disruptive innovation, emphasizing a continuous innovation program that relies on ecosystems and platforms.  And in that we might be right.

Disruptive innovation for its own sake is not valuable unless it either links to an existing ecosystem (unlikely if the solution is truly disruptive) or completely replaces the existing ecosystem (unusual but possible – look no further than Apple’s iPod/iTunes disruption which replaced an entire ecosystem).

What Paul and I are actually suggesting is that innovators MUST consider the eventual platforms and ecosystems that any new solution (product, service, business model, etc) will live within.  You simply don’t innovate in a vacuum and must consider all of the aspects of the eventual customers’ total experience, not just the features or benefits of your contribution to that experience.  This leads to a couple of very interesting conclusions:

  1. All innovation is “open” innovation.  Once we get past the idea of “where” the ideas come from, we can see that all innovation has to consider the products, services, data and other components of the customers’ total solution.  This means that innovation will always be somewhat “open” because ideas and solutions won’t be stand alone or discrete solutions but part of a larger whole, unless the innovation does away with the larger whole altogether.  This means that we have to both consider the customers’ needs as well as the existing platforms and ecosystems when we innovate.  The existing ecosystems and platforms can’t be ignored – they must be considered and incorporated into the innovation activity.
  2. All innovation is “experience” innovation.  While we innovators love to create new features and new capabilities, the ultimate winner will be the product, service or business model that provides the best experience in the moment, and across the customer’s journey.  This means we need to expand our understanding of customer needs, to interpret “jobs to be done” in much broader ways.  A stand-alone product with excellent features that doesn’t integrate into the entirety of the customers’ experience will become an irritant, not a successful solution.  New features and benefits are nice, as long as they work within (or completely subvert) the ecosystems and expected experiences.
  3. Innovators must understand the platforms and ecosystems that exist.  No idea is an island.  They all exist within the context of the total solution customers want and need.  Unless, like Apple, you can create and own the entire customer journey or experience from hardware to software to applications and data, you will participate in an existing ecosystem built on specific platforms.  How you add value to the customer within that ecosystem, and how you create more seamless experiences for those customers is what will ultimately decide the value of your innovation.  Ignore the ecosystem and platform at your own peril.

If these conclusions are accurate, what does this mean for corporate innovators, new product and service developers?

First, they need to start from the outside in.  No customer cares about how interesting your capabilities or technologies are unless you also understand the customer in his or her context.  Solve not just the technology gaps and feature needs, but also understand and provide for the customer’s expectations of seamless experiences with existing products, services and channels.  Innovation is not a solitary sport – it must be played in teams drawn from the ecosystem.  For many corporations this suggestion will completely reverse how they approach innovation, but it will make them far more successful.

Second, understand how your proposed solution fits within the platforms and ecosystems, and what it adds to the total solution.  You can’t expect customers to immediately grasp what one component of a total solution provides, or why they should swap one component of the solution for another one.  Just as most of us don’t know what kind of spark plugs are in our car’s engine, and probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish differences, we need to understand the value of our innovation and how it contributes to the total solution.  Does it add enough value to matter?  Will the customer even care about a small component of a larger ecosystem?

Third, get out of your office and connect, not just with customers but with your potential ecosystem and platform partners.  A solution that truly satisfies a customer and creates a seamless experience will involve channels, other products and services, data and information, and other capabilities or solutions.  If you don’t have relationships with these other components or vendors, and don’t understand what their value propositions are and how you’ll integrate with them, you’ll never create a really compelling new innovation that matters to customers.

The unifying view

Too often in innovation we seek one tool or technique that will illuminate needs or provide such incredible insight that it trumps all other activities, and in many cases there aren’t any definitive approaches or tools.  However, to really, deeply understand the customer in their context and in their expectation of a seamless experience, one method or tool rises to the top:  the customer experience journey.

A customer experience journey map, which documents the customer’s journey and experience from first discovering a need to acquiring solutions to using the solution and then to reuse or finding a new solution, indicates what a customer is thinking and how they are encountering options or solutions.  Too often we innovators are only interested in the “moments of truth” – the times when our products or services are used within the journey.  These moments, of course, are important.  But to optimize within the “moment” but fail to connect or integrate with the larger journey or experience is to fail.  Good innovators will understand that the customer experience journey is a map of customer experience, and that the entire journey matters, not just specific moments.  The journey is supported and improved by a robust ecosystem resting on or enabled by a platform. Until we innovators truly understand the entire customer experience, we’ll never appreciate the value of the ecosystem and the way it enables or adds value to our products and services and helps the customer achieve what they really want to achieve.

Start with the end in mind

Once you understand just how important the ecosystem is for an innovator and a customer, it will become clear that innovators must start from the outside in, learning about the ecosystem that provides solutions for customers and where his or her product or service must integrate.  From this knowledge we can also begin to fully comprehend the customer’s experience or journey and see how our products and services provide value to the customer while also integrating and enabling the rest of the ecosystem.  Soon you’ll see that these are symbiotic – the ecosystem gains as our innovations engage and improve the ecosystem, and the customer gains as well.  This isn’t to say that the only option is to accept the existing ecosystems and platforms – as Apple has demonstrated you can impose an entirely new journey, platform and ecosystem, but this is much more difficult.

Every journey starts with a single step.  Start your innovation journey by reviewing the ecosystem and deeply understanding the customer journey, to see how these are interlinked.  Then your innovation opportunities will be more apparent, and have more impact.















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