Customer conversations · feedback · Innovation · Product management · Prototypes

Fearless Innovation

In the weeks since I’ve been working from home I have continued reflecting on the material I saw at the Everyday Innovator Summit last month. In reviewing my notes I found one session particularly insightful; it was entitled Creating a Culture of Fearless Innovation and featured a conversation between the conference host and Ben Brenton. Ben is the Chief Innovation Officer for the company Snap-on, makers of high quality professional tools (check them out here if you want to learn more about a highly innovative example of physical product creation), and he shared Snap-on’s approach to innovation (which he also honed through years of working at PepsiCo). You might not immediately think of a tool manufacturer in Wisconsin as a hotbed of innovative ideas but Ben’s presentation was outstanding. Two particular pieces stood out.

First, he spoke about having a customer-driven innovation process involving frequent touch points with end-users throughout the innovation life cycle. As shown both in the illustration below and in the picture at the top of this blog post, Snap-on relies on deep customer connections at each stage in the development process. Once they define what set of customers they want to learn from and what problem areas they want to innovate in, they look for ways to connect with people who will use their products so that they can observe them, listen to them, and empathize with the struggles these customers are facing. This in turn leads to iterative attempts to create “aha moments” for customers as the product developers work through ideas and prototypes to capture these insights. Real end-users evaluate these ideas until together they home in on a useful innovative solution. These steps are part of a ‘customer feedback loop’ that Snap-on uses to provide valuable input into the products and solutions they develop. “End-users are at the center of everything we do,” Ben shared, so concerns about “needs, behaviors, beliefs, usability, ergonomics and aesthetics all help drive design.” We use the same kind of process in developing enterprise financial risk management software and so I found these thoughts easily applicable to the work my team does.

Customer Connection

Second, Ben discussed the “innovation team” they have put together at Snap-on and key traits they look for in members of that team. I won’t share the full list of qualities he mentioned, but some that most resonated with me included the importance of finding people who are curious, empathetic, creative, able to synthesize complex information, comfortable with ambiguity, and gifted as story-tellers. Drawing such a team from diverse parts of the organization allows people to bring their unique expertise and background into group conversations with customers, thereby creating a more dynamic seedbed for innovative ideas. We have recently pulled together a similar cross-functional team in my company to help groups across the firm generate innovative solutions to real client problems and I appreciated the insights Ben offered on how such a team can foster a culture of collaborative innovation.

As my team and our broader company search for innovative and effective ways to serve the needs of our clients it is great to learn from other innovators in different contexts. The ideas that Ben shared, like much of what I heard in the Everyday Innovator Summit, are ones I’ve continued to ponder as I look for ways to sharpen our approach to product development. Focusing on deep customer connection and nurturing a cross-functional team of innovators are surely two crucial pillars to support innovation across our company, but I know that in truth it’s not that simple.


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