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How Leaders Can Win the Innovation Battle

The innovation leadership battle is to introduce products and services that customers will use. Even the world's largest organizations have had significant and costly innovation misses, such as Google+, Samsung Galaxy Fold, and the Amazon Fire Phone. The technology sector is full of examples where new emerging technologies catch established organizations off guard. Too often, companies focus on the competition leading to these misses. Leaders benefit from understanding at a basic level how marketing works. In today's turbulent and fast-paced digital world, traditional approaches frequently fall short of revealing the customer's actual desires and needs. Whether you are the CEO or a frontline leader, delivering on your customers' stated and hidden needs and desires is vital to organizational success.

Moving Beyond a Focus on Your Competition

Although competition can be helpful to invoke change within your organization, the goal is innovating on value, not on your position against competition. Still, organizations frequently focus on the competition too much, leading to misunderstanding customer needs and desires. A better focus is on creating an uncontested market based on a value derived from your customer's implicit and explicit wants and needs. Competent innovation leadership focuses on customer desirability, the feasibility of the technology, and an innovation's potential economic growth and innovation viability.

Understanding Your Customers Needs and Desires

Products need to meet customer's purposeful and empathetic needs. Using traditional focus groups is helpful but contains some inherent weaknesses. Traditional focus groups effectively uncover stated needs but not indirect or hidden requirements. Customers are not intentionally misleading researchers during focus groups but they cannot effectively communicate the subtleties of their desires in the traditional focus group meeting format. Consider the spaghetti sauce example in the Ted Talk linked below from Malcolm Gladwell. For many years, an organization applied focus groups to understand the needs and desires of customers. However, the company never uncovered that a third of the population preferred chunky spaghetti sauce even though customers were repeatedly asked what they desired.

The complexity of communication and the capability of entrepreneurial leaders to detect and understated signs from customers impacts the quality of outcomes attained from focus groups. Entrepreneurial leaders benefit from developing capabilities to identify faint signs of customer's wants and desires.

Empathic Research

Empathy is described as recognizing and understanding a person's state of mind. Creating products that will meet customer's and potential customer's empathetic needs requires a new approach to the traditional focus group. Empathic research involves seeing subtleties of natural behavior that reveal needs, desires, and behaviors not shared in traditional focus groups.

Empathic research is qualitative in nature and based upon focused observation.

Compensatory behaviors are one of the most prevalent signs of the need for empathic research. Compensatory behaviors are the use of a product in a manner other than intended, and they are everywhere. For example, consider the typical ironing board something you need but don't enjoy using if you are like me. Because it is unstable, you have to place it next to something to prevent it from tipping over when being used. The act of placing it next to something to prevent it from tipping over is a compensatory behavior. Organizations that realize the most value from empathic research engage customers, noncustomers, and users in the design process utilizing prototyping.

In the Ted Talk below, Tim Brown shares a real-world example of the value of empathic research. Kaiser Permanente researched how to improve the patient experience and by applying an empathic research approach realized increased patient confidence and enhanced nurse happiness. In this example, nurses and practitioners applied observational research, brainstorming, and prototyping strategies focused on information sharing. The outcome led to shift changes in front of the patient instead of at the nurse's station.

How to Improve the Traditional Focus Group

Improving the traditional focus group approach to marketing and innovation means rethinking the how, who, what, and where (see Table 1) of the focus group. Direct observation is how focus groups should be conducted. Focus groups need to include leaders observing consumers. Entrepreneurial leaders need to make direct observations and not delegate this step.

"There is no substitute for seeing for yourself" Kim and Mauborgne

Whom to observe in the focus group needs to include customers, noncustomers, and users if they are not the customers. What leadership should be observing is customers and noncustomers directly engaging with the products and where is in their natural environment.

Key Points

  • Organizations are looking to innovate to fuel growth and every leader needs to understand marketing at a basic level.

  • Products need to meet customer's purposeful and empathetic needs.

  • The complexity of communication and the capability of entrepreneurial leaders to detect and understated signs from customers impacts the quality of outcomes attained from focus groups.

  • Empathic research provides insights into how leaders can improve the traditional focus groups.


Agnihotri, A. (2016). Extending boundaries of blue ocean strategy. Journal of Strategic Marketing, 24(6), 519-528.

Brown, T. (2009). Designers-think big [Video]. TedGlobal2009.

Dyson, J. (2010). Sir James Dyson: [Video]. Vimeo.

Gladwell, M. (2004) Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce [Video]. Ted2004.

Kim, W. C., & Mauborgne, R. (2015). Blue ocean strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make competition irrelevant (1st ed.). Harvard Business School Press.

Oster, G. (2008). Divining the need: Compensatory behavior of customers. Regent Global Business Review, 2(2), 14-18.

Suarez, F. F., Utterback, J., Gruben, P. V., & Kang, H. Y. (2018). The hybrid trap: Why most efforts to bridge old and new technology miss the mark. MIT Sloan Management Review, 59(3), 52-57.

Thomas, J., & McDonagh, D. (2013). Empathic design: Research strategies. Australasian Medical Journal, 6(1), 1-6.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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