Some time ago, for an ongoing project about “organising for innovation”, I interviewed a guy called Farooq Chaudhry; a founder and producer of the Akram Khan Dance Company. The Akram Khan Company is a small but extremely innovative (and extremely successful…) company which focuses on creating contemporary dance.
Farooq had several interesting things to say about creating an organisation that excels in delivering continuing, successful innovation. One of them, that stuck to my mind, was “In order to be truly innovative, you have to forget about your customer”.
What?! I don’t know much about Marketing (and would prefer to keep it that way), but don’t these people always go on and on about “customer-focus”, “client-driven innovation”, “the customer always comes first”, and so on?
So I tried, “Farooq, do you perhaps mean that you should only have the customer in the back of your mind?” “No, no, I mean, customers – just forget about them altogether”. Ok…
What (on earth) did Farooq Chaudhry mean – after all, this is one of the most innovative companies of their kind, since… well, like ever?
According to him, if you want to be truly innovative, you have to purposely not try to give the customer what he wants. Because, as he argued, if you set out to develop what you think the customer will like, you end up satisfying existing needs and tastes; you follow the customer, rather than that you lead him. True innovation, according to him, is about changing the tastes of customers, and giving them something that they have never seen or even imagined before.
There is a quote, attributed to Henry Ford I believe, which says that when asked about his belief in the future of motorised transport, he replied “If I had asked the customer what he wanted, I would have ended up building a faster horse”.
I believe innovation requires revolution, almost by definition, rather than evolution.
Great quote. Farooq also told me that, of course, they care whether the customer will like it; “there’s nothing performers love more than a full house” and hate it when the theatre is half empty. However, to be truly innovative, they don’t want to develop things that the customer/audience will like now, but things which (they believe) they will learn to love.