Missing: customer experience lab

by Bruce Kasanoff on May 14, 2011

There’s a reason why the most innovative, dynamic and successful firms end up that way: they experiment.

Google Labs is where employees toss around half-based ideas and eventually begin to expose them to the world at large. The App Inventor, for example, is designed to allow non-programmers to develop Android apps.

Apple enjoys a constant flood of innovative ideas, thanks to the 416,849 and counting submissions to its App Store. Through iTunes, it learns how customers browse, buy and use not only music but also TV shows, movies, podcasts and even audio books.

Truth is, there’s a growing tension between being a reliable supplier of quality products – Wall Street, reviewers and customers all demand this – and being innovative enough to stay ahead of fickle tastes, advancing technologies and fierce competitive pressures.

But to handle unprecedented volatility, firms need to experiment, to peer deeper into the future, to retain the flexibility to change course both suddenly and successfully.

Many of the strategies I endorse, such as creating cross-disciplinary teams and shortening work plans to leave room for near-constant shifts in direction, would spell disaster for the portions of major firms that have to churn out millions of products this quarter.

These adaptive, collaborative practices demand a lab, and not one that is locked away in the corner of your business. Google’s 20% Time policy allows every employee one-fifth of their time to work on any idea that interests them. The new Google Art Project came from Google Labs, and it offers a remarkable way to explore museums and artworks from your very own lazy chair. Gmail, Google Talk, and Google News all started as 20% projects.

Here’s the reality: in today’s networked, interconnected world a corporate lab can and should be ‘everywhere.” It should encourage contributions from all employees.

This is the only way to keep a firm’s customer experience vision ahead of customer expectations. It provides space to fail, to escape the constrictions of naysayers, and to give birth to substantive and lasting opportunities.

But at many firms, this is nonsense. No one “has time” to experiment. There’s no budget for “unproven” ideas. Few executives think it prudent to give any measure of self control over their time to “junior” level employees. Of course, these same firms have time and money for seemingly endless meetings, for excuses, and for reports that defend questionable levels of service, support and innovation.

Earlier today, I compared the 1960 and 2010 Fortune 500 lists. The 1960 list was filled with oil, car, and steel companies. The 2010 one still has some of the old stalwarts, but is dominated by financial, retail, healthcare and technology firms. Here’s my point: if you limit a bright engineer to making incremental changes in his existing product line, he will never be able to share his insight that your firm has opportunities to build entirely new and different businesses. You need to give your people the room to act as intelligently as the customers they serve.

If you can’t find your customer experience lab, or speak proudly of it, it’s time to fix that, and fast.

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