Innovation Through Co-Creation: Thinking “Outside” the Box

15 May 2008|Tim Hyer

In my previous blog, I highlighted the role that insiders play in the innovation process. Today, we’ll look outward. On the flipside to looking within a company’s walls to inspire invention, plenty of organizations find themselves searching outside for the insights required to make the next creative leap. At Cheskin, this is our primary focus for client engagements – to bring the voice of the consumer into the design and development cycle for products, services, and experiences. In order for innovation to occur, one must understand the people who use it, the cultural implications, and the impact the change will have on other facets of life. It’s all about giving the consumer a voice, and getting to know them is the first step. Consumer research isn’t a new thing, but companies are getting more and more creative about their methods of collecting these insights.

Take Procter & Gamble and its recent success under leader, A.G. Lafley. P&G has long been a proponent of consumer research, but only recently expanded consumers’ role in product development by getting their feedback early in development rather than at the end. As Lafley discusses in his new book, The Game Changer, “The consumer is key at the end. But if we can get her or him involved at the beginning, we have a much better chance at success.” Which is why the company has built entire web portals dedicated to personal and beauty care, like Capessa – a community for moms. Members of these online communities usually have no idea they are on a site that’s monitored by P&G or other companies because they are truly catered to the lifestyles and interests of the niche audiences they serve. The information gleaned from these online communities are invaluable from a trends, habits, and attitudes perspective since they allow the host company to monitor consumer activities and preferences. These insights fuel brainstorming sessions around efforts related to marketing, business strategy, and product development. P&G also engages its consumers in less subtle ways by asking their opinions straight-up. Just last week, the consumer goods giant set up an option on its main customer toll-free line which allowed consumers to weigh in on the company’s controversial media decisions. Beyond untraditional methods for involving the consumer, P&G also keeps an external focus through relationships with partners like InnoCentive. This company connects P&G with a global network of 140,000+ external “solvers” to help uncover creative solutions to some of their most important product development challenges during any stage of the development lifecycle. Partnerships like this help companies to constantly re-evaluate the way they’re thinking internally and ensure their products remain fresh from an external point of view.

Nokia recently launched Nokia Beta Labs, a website where the Finnish handset maker lets users test the latest smartphone software. A recent Business Week article commented on this program – “Known for being obsessive about consumer research, (Nokia’s) site is an alternative to the focus groups and surveys that are usually used to gauge consumer reaction to a new product.” Through this initiative, Nokia consumers are interfacing directly with the company and are helping make the mobile internet more useful.

Even Starbucks has enlisted the help of its loyal consumers with the launch of, an online suggestion box of sorts. Here, customers can make suggestions, have these suggestions discussed and voted on, and reviewed by Starbucks to see what gains traction. The live forum has already sparked ideas such as coffee ice cubes to prevent diluted drinks, and splash sticks to plug the mouth hole on lids to prevent annoying spills.

Netflix took it even a step further by offering a $1M prize to the first person who could improve the accuracy of the current movie recommendation system by 10%. So far, there have been thousands of proposals, the best one improving the current system by 8.4%. Netflix has done nothing but benefit from the effort by starting an engaging conversation with their customers and fielding thousands of fresh ideas to a problem they’re already grappling with internally. A true win-win situation.

It’s initiatives like these and others that are driving the breakthroughs in today’s innovation landscape. In the spirit of transparency and true meritocracy, corporations are breaking down hierarchical walls and opening the lines of communication with those who know their products best – their consumers and their employees. From the mail room, to the dorm room, to the laundry room, there are some new voices being heard in the boardroom and getting long-overdue seats at the table. So speak up, be heard. And may the best idea win!

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