Innovation Advice You Can Actually Use Today

A conversation between Brett Townsend and Gwen Ishmael


How many articles and presentations have been offered about how to do successful innovation over the past 10, 15, 20, or 30 years? Too many. Yet there is still so much bad innovation being produced, so many products, services, and experiences that last a year or less, and so many unproductive innovation processes. Surely with all these articles that have been written, companies and brands must have learned something!

Here are the three main reasons why most innovation advice doesn’t work:

  • It covers so many things that you don’t know where to start.
  • It focuses too much on philosophy or theory and offers no practical application.
  • It only offers superficial or basic information everyone knows already.

The following is a conversation I had with Gwen Ishmael, an innovation expert and frequent collaborator, outlining tips you can apply in your innovation efforts today. Between the two of us, we are responsible for scores of successful, long-lasting innovations worth an estimated $10 billion globally, so we’ve developed both strong opinions and clear guidelines on what works.

BRETT: I think we need to start with the most important thing that needs to happen before you even begin to generate ideas and concepts—there must be buy-in from the top. Every innovation project needs to start with asking, is there a clear and accepted definition of success?

GWEN: Definitely. We know that successful innovation can be a personal elevator. It’s something that leaders and those who aspire to lead love to hang their hats on because it can be a career-maker. But it’s also a place where a lot of turf battles surface. People want their own fingerprints on innovation, and if the vision is not shared it can lead them down different paths.

BRETT: And many times in corporate environments, the key stakeholders – whether it be the CMO, head of innovation, or even the CEO – don’t think about the trickle-down effect their innovation opinions have on the rest of the organization. I experienced coworkers who knew a certain innovation vision wouldn’t work but were afraid to say anything because they didn’t want to be viewed as going over the head of their key stakeholder. But really what you’re doing is trying to get the lay of the land on what’s defined as success.

GWEN: I’ve had many clients that want to shortchange that upfront alignment process. The most successful clients are totally open with us. They even let us conduct interviews with primary and secondary stakeholders and the implementation people who are a little bit more downstream so we can understand where they stand and what their issues are.

BRETT: It’s crazy how something as simple as getting alignment on what success looks like can literally make or break your innovation. It allows you to identify problems or people who can derail the entire process.

GWEN: Let’s move on to the other practical tip we want to share, and that is you have to make sure you are listening to the right voices. This may sound harsh, but not every consumer is worth listening to. And some consumer voices are absolutely critical during certain parts of the process and less during others. If you don’t listen to the right voices, you wind up getting pulled in all kinds of different directions.

BRETT: That’s exactly what we mean by the phrase “human-centric but not human-dependent.” We don’t rely on consumers to tell us what to do because they can’t. But we involve the right consumer voices in the right phases of the process.

Another trap some companies fall into is they think because they have a lot of really smart people in the company they can come up with ideas. There are some major problems with that: The first is that most people in the company don’t truly understand the consumer needs or conflict. Second, the same ideas keep getting recycled because everyone has their pet innovation ideas. Lastly, many internally- generated ideas require a big change in consumer behavior, are too difficult to execute, or are something that literally no consumer would want because it wasn’t based on filling a meaningful need.

So, the first voice to listen to is your target consumer to understand their unmet needs and the daily conflicts your innovation can solve. Truly disruptive products, like the iPhone, Alexa, Tesla, or streaming Netflix, weren’t ideas developed by consumers but by companies who understood consumer needs and gave consumers solutions they didn’t even know they needed or wanted.

GWEN: When you don’t involve consumer needs and just rely on internal ideation, what happens many times is internal people like to believe they are “thinking out of the box,” which is a phrase I’ve always disliked. The reality is that there is always a box! Eventually, there comes a point where something can’t be done for whatever reason. The key is to stretch as far to the edges of the box as possible. That’s why the second voice you need to listen to is from both innovative consumers and creative thinkers who are carefully screened and tested for their advanced creative abilities. People who can generate a large volume of ideas that aren’t just line extensions of existing products.

BRETT: But you don’t just let those consumers run wild. You give them exercises and it’s very structured.

GWEN: Yes, I refer to this as “directed creativity.” We give people frameworks and guardrails for their ideas and allow them to freely go anywhere within those parameters.

BRETT: What I found interesting many times is that even engineers and product developers don’t always understand what’s possible within “the box.” They think they know the box, but then when they’re presented with these boundary-pushing ideas, they realize that the box is maybe a little bigger than they thought. And it’s these creative voices at the beginning of the process that help them see it. Most times, people within corporations approach innovation with the mindset of what we can’t do rather than what we can do because that’s a big part of their day-to-day jobs. Creative thinkers can help them remove the blinders.

GWEN: Then after you have developed a new concept you want to launch, the third voice to listen to is from lead users. These consumers are masters at finding problems or faults with what you’ve developed.

BRETT: Or as we jokingly call them, mother-in-law consumers.

GWEN: Ha, you said that, not me! Lead users are not good at generating ideas, but they are good at assessing a product. And they’re not just negative Nellie’s — they also tell you what’s great about the product. It’s a critical human check-in before final testing and launch.

BRETT: You can do all the best research in the world and sometimes (even when everyone is on the same page working towards the same goal,) something isn’t quite right in the creation or execution of the innovation. We used these lead users at Frito-Lay with great success to perfect a unique concept prior to mass production.

GWEN: So the practical things you can do right now to improve your innovation work are to make sure you have internal buy-in from the top on the goals of any particular innovation project and listen to the right consumer voices during the process — the target consumer — to understand the jobs to be done, creative thinkers who can help you generate ideas that stretch the limits of the box, and lead users to give the important feedback before testing and launch. There are certainly more suggestions we’ll offer in another addition, but those are a couple that can be done now that many corporations overlook.


  • Brett Townsend

    As SVP of Strategy, Brett is future-focused by offering clients consulting about Brand and Innovation Strategy, always focused on building muscular brands and organic growth.

    Brett is always quick to drop a movie or TV quote, a historical anecdote, or music lyrics to any situation. He’s happy to give you travel or eating tips to many domestic and global destinations, as well as advice on being a girl dad.

    As a client of Quester for over 10 years before joining the team, Brett’s favorite thing about Quester is our desire to never settle, we’re always looking for better ways to solve problems, and to offer our clients the art and science that tells story behind the story—because human behavior is rarely linear and can’t be explained with data points.

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