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The Power of Observation in Innovation

A number of years ago when Hewlett-Packard still had a Medical Products Group (prior to the Agilent spin-off and later acquisition by Philips), I had a chance to be a product manager in the echocardiography business.  My first big assignment was to assume marketing responsibility for a  development project focused on bringing new functionality specifically designed for pediatric echocardiographers and their tiny patients. The project was already defined and the engineering team was deep in the implementation phase.  I was not only new to being a product manager but also a novice when it came to the complexities of congenital abnormalities that my customers were tasked with assessing.  Hearts the size of a walnut and beating rapidly, pediatric cardiologists have the difficult task of plotting treatment plans for complex heart issues.

One of the things I did to gain an understanding of my customers' needs, clinical environment and competitive dynamics was identify the top 15 thought leaders in the market and speak to them face to face in their labs about how our product was performing on their patients.  Armed with a questionnaire and QFD survey (a valuable tool which I highly recommend when trying to turn qualitative needs into actionable information), I was able to see side-by-side demonstrations of how our solutions performed compared to the competition.

In the midst of this humbling and illuminating process I learned many things, though some of the most valuable take-aways didn't come as the result of my questions.  In preparation for one of the planned key opinion leader visits, I contacted the head of the echo department at a fabulous children's hospital in Ohio and asked him if he minded my shadowing him for the day.  I told him I wanted to understand his needs, the context in which our products existed, and how he used information in his daily job.

"Are you sure you want to follow me around all day?" he asked.

"I really do", I earnestly replied.

"Then meet me at 6:45am tomorrow morning in the lab, ready to go."

We started the next day by visiting his patients in the NICU, checking charts, speaking with nurses, and examining the patients, hearing how his patients fared over the night and how they were recovering from surgery or other therapy.  I watched him wheel our imaging system over, select a transducer, fiddle with the imaging settings, and then open both port windows of the incubator, putting one hand into the left port and the hand holding the transducer through the other port window.

I could clearly see that he was struggling to maneuver the transducer and asked him what the issue was.  Exacerbated, he told me that the cable of the transducer was heavy and stiff.  It was hard to get the transducer into the incubator and in the right position without letting the transducer put any of its weight on the tiny patient's chest.  If he let that happen, he explained, the weight could cause an arrhythmia.

I nodded my head in acknowledgment, watched him struggle and eventually get the transducer in place, gently touching the baby's chest, and get his assessment images.

I had arrived loaded with my questions and survey, ready to find out about image quality, frame rate, transducer frequencies and imaging depths....and came away with an unexpected gift, the opportunity to observe and let my customer's needs reveal themselves. I didn't know to ask about transducer cables.  It hadn't come up previously and I might not have gotten to that insight in any number of surveys.  But fortunately I had the invaluable opportunity to simply observe.

It is a lesson I try never to forget.  While so much has become virtual and remote in this day and age...telephone survey, blog posts, internet panels and Twitter feeds...I encourage you to preserve time to be in your customer's space, get a sense of what frustrates and motivates them, get a sense of how your solutions fit into their context, and find ways to add value that are meaningful to them.  Sometimes it's the aggregation of little things which sum to significant, differentiable contributions.

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For more information on the power of observation, I recommend the book "Customer Centered Growth, Five Proven Strategies for Building Competitive Advantage" by Richard Whitely and Diane Hessan.

I also highly recommend Eric Von Hippel's work at MIT that discusses lead user innovation.