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What if much of what you know — or think you know — about the innovation process is wrong?
That’s a question Eric von Hippel thinks many companies — and businesspeople — should consider.
Von Hippel, who is a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as a professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, has spent much of his professional career doing research that has led him to a radical conclusion: The traditional view of the product innovation process is flawed. In the traditional view, companies get too much credit for product innovation, according to von Hippel — and users get too little.
Surprisingly often, von Hippel argues, ideas for new or improved products come first from users who develop improvised versions to serve their own needs. Manufacturers then may discover, polish and capitalize on user innovations — particularly if those innovations begin to catch on with a group of users. Particularly important, in von Hippel’s view, are lead users — sophisticated users who are the most likely to innovate to satisfy their own needs.
I spoke with von Hippel earlier this year. In this brief excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity, von Hippel talks about how to identify such lead users.
MIT Sloan Management Review: You’ve made the distinction between such lead users, who as I understand it are advanced users who are proportionally more likely to innovate — and ordinary users. How do I, as a manufacturer, identify who those lead users are? Where do I find lead users?
Von Hippel: What you do is you go to the leading edge of your market, and you find the people who have the most extreme problems now. For example, in a case study that’s in a videotape on my MIT website, 3M was looking for surgeons who were lead users in infection control. They found that surgeons who operate on cancer patients had developed improved infection control methods, because often those patients were immune-compromised, so they were really getting bad infections. I have free materials on my site that people can use to conduct studies to find “lead users” in their markets.
What producers and entrepreneurs will see in the project manual and videos on the website is that the way you identify lead users is sort of a networking process. Find someone who is good at the area you’re researching — say a really good tennis player, if you’re looking for new tennis products, or a really good surgeon who cares about infection control, if you’re looking for new infection control methods — and ask that person about his or her experience. But then also ask that person: Who knows more than you? Who’s seeing a worse problem than you are?
It’s the same thing reporters do. You find somebody who knows something about a subject and you ask that person, “Well, does somebody else know more?” Then you repeat the process. It’s pretty quick.
MIT Sloan Management Review: So you figure out the places where the locus of innovation is likely to be and who the users are who are most likely to be innovating. So essentially it’s doing a kind of reporting and networking — in this case to try to figure out where the problem is.
Von Hippel: Yes, it’s networking to find the users who have the problem you are trying to solve in a very severe form. If any user has developed and use-tested a good solution, these “lead users” are the ones most likely to have done it.
[Editor’s Note: You can learn more about von Hippel’s ideas by reading the MIT Sloan Management Review interview from which this excerpt is taken, “The User Innovation Revolution.” For more about the user innovation paradigm and recent research on consumer innovation, see “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator,” an article written by von Hippel, Susumu Ogawa and Jeroen P. J. de Jong in the Fall 2011 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. ]