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It has become one of the most prevalent buzzwords of our time. Companies want people to associate it with their brand. You’ll often find it on company websites and in mission statements.

I’m talking, of course, about "innovation.”

You don’t have to look far to see why companies strive to be innovative. If you consider Fast Company’s list of the most innovative companies of 2016, for example, you’ll see a list of prosperous brands. Included are companies like BuzzFeed (which recently crossed $100 million in revenue and has reached $850 million in valuation) and Facebook (profit of $3.69 billion in 2015).

The most valued brands today are those that have become the very face of customer-centric innovation. Because of their technologies or new ways of solving things, these companies gain a lot of media attention and customer loyalty, resulting in higher profit margins.

But customer-centric innovation is harder than it seems. With the rise of mobile, social and cloud technologies, customers have become more empowered—and their expectations continue to change. Customers want better products, and they expect companies to listen.

So, what do innovative companies do differently? It comes down to six powerful habits. 

  1. Innovative companies foster a culture of innovation.

Accelerating the innovation process doesn’t happen by accident. The companies that have the right process in place are more likely to come up with great ideas. That’s where a culture of innovation is critical.

The most innovative employees in your company are not always in R&D or in the boardroom. Your front-line employees—those who implement a new system or those who sell a new product—are valuable sources of insight and should be included in your innovation strategy.

Customer support might have ideas on how to improve processes since they are the very people who help customers with issues. The marketing department can provide insight on what other companies are doing and what promotions resonate with customers.

The point: big ideas can come from anywhere in your company. Harness these ideas by fostering a culture of collaboration and co-creation.

Tweet this!Big ideas can come from anywhere in your company. Foster a culture of innovation. (CLICK TO TWEET)

  1. Innovative companies involve their customers early.

To get creative ideas, don’t forget to talk to the people you’re designing your products for: your customers.

“Innovative companies talk to customers and other partners,” said a recent Business Insider article about customer-centric innovation. “Creating ideas means knowing customers really well. Most creative companies say they find their best ideas by talking to customers.”

Tweet this!Most creative companies find their best ideas by talking to customers. (CLICK TO TWEET)

The very early stage of the innovation cycle is crucial. Unfortunately, few companies actually involve their customers in this phase, even though product and brand managers often need the customer perspective to refine and support their decisions.

The good news is that more brands like DEWALT and Maple Leaf Foods are embarking on co-creation—meaning, they’re engaging customers earlier in the process. To make sure you’re on the right track, treat your customers as partners and ask for their insight from the start.

  1. Innovative companies involve customers throughout the process.

In their book Everything Connects—How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability, entrepreneur Faisal Hoque and journalist Drake Baer pinpointed continuous customer engagement as an integral part of the innovation process. They wrote in Business Insider: ”Listen again to the customer to help them imagine; use prototypes to elicit feedback; listen to customer acceptance/buying criteria; listen to what could go wrong, but don’t let the devil’s advocate take control.”

While crowdsourcing projects often get customer input at the beginning of the process, what’s more useful is to use a customer intelligence platform every step of the way. That’s because your customers have different strengths when it comes to  the innovation process. Not everyone is an idea-generating machine. Some customers are better at evaluating ideas, while others excel at suggesting improvements. If you have a branded community, play to the collective power of your customer base by engaging the right people at the right time instead of engaging just one segment.

When engaging with customers, it’s critical to have a deep understanding of the various sources of innovation intelligence available at your disposal. From traditional focus groups to insight communities, there are many ways of gathering customer intelligence. But to accelerate the innovation process, you’ve got to know why customers do what they do. The tools that you use for innovation need to let you dig deeper and build stronger relationships with your customers.


  1. Innovative companies marry internal and external insight.

In Open Services Innovation: Rethinking Your Business to Grow and Compete in a New Era, Professor Henry Chesbrough asserts that ”companies must think beyond their products and move outside their own four walls to innovate.”

Many companies are embracing this ”outside in” approach when they run crowdsourcing and other open innovation initiatives. But innovation happens when you finally connect the dots.

It’s not enough to engage your customers and your employees separately. Put in place a systematic process that combines insight from both.

  1. Innovative companies treat innovation as a continuous process.

Customer-centric innovation is not a one-time project. To create better products faster, companies must be more strategic in their approach to innovation.

In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, Gary Hamel, a visiting professor at the London Business School, and Nancy A. Tennant, vice president for innovation and margin realization at Whirlpool Corporation, argue that innovation requires a systemic view. According to the authors, systematic innovation is not about individual tools and tactics, but how each of those methods fit together to accelerate the product innovation cycle.

Essentially, companies need a systematic way of continuously identifying opportunities for improvement. Companies need to ensure that they have all the customer intelligence tools they need to get customer feedback as they develop or improve their products and services.

  1. Innovative companies move fast.

Innovation is not just about having the best products and services—often, it’s also being first and delivering to market quickly.

In The Enterprise Guide to Innovation, Andrew Reid, founder and president of corporate innovation at Vision Critical, says that achieving a more agile innovation model requires having customer intelligence you can trust.

“To innovate with speed and confidence, you need to understand the why behind your customers’ choices and reactions,” writes Reid. “You need to integrate that actionable intelligence into every stage of the innovation cycle.”

Bringing customer intelligence into your ideation process begins with an understanding of the strengths and limitations of the various tools available, according to Reid. Companies need tools that are not only fast but are also cost-effective. But more importantly, customer intelligence platforms need to provide a complete and dynamic picture of the customer journey.

Adds Reid, “Once you’ve recognized those limitations, and acted to get the timely, quality customer feedback you need, you’ll be on your way to accelerating the innovation cycle and creating products that win.”

Tweet this!The truth about innovation: No company could innovate effectively on its own. (CLICK TO TWEET)


The truth about innovation is that no company could innovate effectively on its own. Being open to ideas—not just from your own people, but also from customers—can give you the necessary insight to come up with better business ideas faster.

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Note: A version of this article was first published in July 2014. This post was updated with new information and insight.

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