A company that doesn’t generate and integrate new ideas on a regular basis is a company with a very short future. Robert B. Tucker, author of “Driving Growth through Innovation: How Leading Firms are Transforming their Futures,” says that one of the most important things you can do to drive innovation is to involve customers in the process. Rather than relying solely on the old-standby focus group, though, consider some alternatives.

To maintain its market position as the “ultimate driving machine,” Munich-based BMW created what it calls a Virtual Innovation Agency (VIA) to listen to customers directly. Car buffs worldwide can join online discussions with other enthusiasts’ and with BMW. They can also submit ideas through a process that protects those ideas. Within the first four weeks after launch of the VIA site, 4,000 ideas were received. An advisory board of key customers can serve as a sounding board for ideas, and tailored surveys can help ferret out what customers really want. Another key strategy is to focus on the unarticulated needs of customers. Callaway Golf found out by quizzing golfers that many felt frustrated and intimidated by the game. By creating the Big Bertha—a club that made it easier for golfers to hit the ball, and to hit it farther—Callaway’s innovators created a blockbuster.

The Innovation Resource/The Futurist Mar/Apr 2003