Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Nantucket: Tapping Customers to Co-Design Your Company

Every so often, a concept lodges in your psyche and then suddenly, you notice it everywhere.

At the recent Nantucket Conference, I had the pleasure of listening to Patty Seybold's session entitled, "Why Let Customers 'Co-Design' Your Company."

Seybold has always been several steps ahead of the curve and her research firm has always been peopled by thoughtful analysts with real integrity. In recent years, during a period when several traditional research firms have fallen by the wayside, Seybold has reinvented her research firm to give it a very distinctive focus on the Customer Experience. She's also written two bestsellers: Customers.com and The Customer Revolution.

Seybold's Nantucket session highlighted examples where forward-thinking companies have incorporated customer feedback in innovative ways. As the parent of a reformed Lego addict, I could relate to her LEGO® Mindstorm® example. Mindstorms are "build and program robotics toolsets." They also happen to be the best-selling product in the LEGO Group’s history, no doubt as a result of the way in which LEGO has built and fostered a devout community around this product.

According to Seybold's blog post on the topic, two weeks after the product was introduced in 1998, hackers reverse-engineered the firmware and developed a number of additional software programs that could be used to program the gizmos. Rather than respond with a lawsuit in response to this assault on its IP, Lego embraced these innovators, grasping that they could help the company improve the product.




©2004 The LEGO Group. One day I'll figure out how to get images to wrap in Blogger.MINDSTORMS AlphaRex
Fast forward a few years, and check out this May 1 press release lead: "The LEGO Group today announced that for the first time it will release as open source the firmware of the LEGO® MINDSTORMS® microprocessor – the new NXT brick – the core component of its next generation robotics toolset."

Here's the exec quote in the release, from which we can all learn a thing or two:

“Most often, innovation comes from the core community of users. Our ongoing commitment to enabling our fan base to personalize and enhance their MINDSTORMS experience has reached a new level with our decision to release the firmware for the NXT brick as open source,” said Søren Lund, director of LEGO MINDSTORMS. “When we launched the legacy MINDSTORMS platform in 1998, the community found ways to do these things on their own, and we were faced with the question of whether to allow it, which we decided to embrace and encourage. Now, given the strong user base and versatility and power of the NXT platform, the right to hack is a ‘no brainer.’ We’re excited to see how our open approach will push new boundaries of robotic development and are eager for all enthusiasts to share their creations with the community.”

I'm just so impressed with these guys and grateful to Seybold for educating me on the topics of customer-led innovation and lead customers. (These are the 10 percent or so of your customers whose self image is deeply connected to the subject.) For an education on lead users, see Seybold's blog on this topic.

Seybold's next book in the works, to be titled "Outside Innovation," focuses on customer-led innovation. A May 14th Sunday Globe article, titled "Firms Turn R&D on its Head, Looking Outside for Ideas," zeroes in on this very topic. (Sorry the article link is MIA.) The article quotes Seybold:

Seybold, drawing on studies by Eric von Hippel, professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, said forward-thinking businesses are setting up online forums to identify ''lead customers," those who are early adopters and passionate users of their products, and work with them to drive innovation. ''Lead customers are good prognosticators of what your customer base is going to need six months out," she said.

As all of this is simmering, I noticed a card at the Starbucks check out that looked like a simple opportunity to fill out an on-line survey in exchange for a $5 coffee card. You need to understand that my son once started a sentence by saying, "When you go to that big Starbucks in the sky..." to refer to my eventual demise. So I'm a fan. A big fan. I might even be a lead customer. When I hit the link on the card, I found I was being bribed to join the Starbucks Customer Connections program. As a member, they're going to keep me "up to date on news, information and special offers."

Who knows? Maybe I'll get to co-design the next Frappuccino®.

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