Finding disruptive innovation through lead users

The traditional way of finding innovation is to find a need and fill it. Market research teams go directly to potential users and ask them, “What do you think you want?”

More recently, there is a new school of thought on how to discover disruptive innovation even earlier. This thinking is based on finding and commercializing solutions already developed by lead users – not target users.

Lead users often need a solution sooner even than the earliest adopters. Lead users want to create innovative products and services because there is no commercial solution available. Their needs foreshadow general demand in the marketplace. That’s where to find the leading edge of a disruptive innovation demand curve, and one could expect to reap much benefit from their solutions.

Some examples of this type of innovation include Instant Messaging, post-its, chocolate milk, Gatorade, mountain bikes, the sports bra, white-out corrective fluid, automobile air filters and the Web.

You can learn from inventive users both within and outside your field or industry. This is different from the adoption curve since it predates and conceives the traditional adoption curve. The lead user curve often focuses on a specific measurable dimension such as the number of transistors per chip, transaction per hour, population of bacteria per incision, etc.

Here’s one way to begin the Lead User Method:

  1. Select a specific market or specific trend. (E.g. automobile braking)
  2. Brainstorm possible lead users within that market. Who or what firms have needs at the leading edge of the trend? Who has a high incentive or the resource to solve their own leading edge needs? (E.g. F1 racing team)
  3. Brainstorm possible lead users outside the target market. Who in other fields or applications are facing a similar need but in a more extreme and demanding form? (E.g. aerospace engineering)

For a specific examples, see the Nortel Network study.

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