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Tuning to the Signal

Usually when innovation is discussed, or the lack there of it, companies and their managers point to one thing that really matters — listening to customers.

As innovation, Jobs to Be Done theory, and design thinking methodologies become mainstream at even the corporate levels, there’s no excuse nowadays for being out of touch with your customer base. They’re easier to reach than ever, and the consequences for being out of touch will catch up with you every more quickly.

But, is there a danger to pressing your ear too closely to the ground and fine tuning your instruments to the micro-movements of your customer base? Possibly, says Kes Sampanthar of Innovation Factory.

Innovation is all about paying attention to signals of changing desires and trends, says Sampanthar, but we need to differentiate between the short and long wave signals. Short wave stuff is easy: the big data, the micro interactions, the likes and follows of an individual person. These forces ebb and flow on a second by second basis, and more and more are becoming possible to both measure and analyze.

Most companies actually have a pretty good pulse on these short wave signals. They have innovation and co-creation teams asking people for incremental feedback on their products, and they’re listening very closely for even the slightest shifts in day-to-day preferences.

The problem, of course, comes with the long wave trends. These shifts are often so massive that the consumers themselves have trouble articulating them, and they’re counterculture to the point that even the best futurologists don’t see them coming. They’re the movements that are all around us, but seem too far off or too preposterous to even comprehend, much less do anything preemptive about. As Sampanthar quotes, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

These long wave trends happen slowly, slowly, slowly and then suddenly they’re upon us in full force, lifting us up off the sand and smashing anything that isn’t securely tied down.


What can we do about these cosmic shifts, other than hope they happen to someone else? Counter-intuitively, by pulling back a bit from the innovation machines we’ve built and looking around at broader, seemingly unrelated trends, we may be able to catch a glimpse of what’s coming.


By a different token, having an organization that’s designed to shift and bend against the onslaught of an unexpected wave, rather than snap from rigidity, may be the most effective defense against an enemy we cannot see. Train your team to be open to embracing change and looking for opportunity in the coming waters rather than doom.

The problem with innovating faster in a big company, of course, is that it usually gets done by creating systems that let us do it in a streamlined, efficient way. This is great until it isn’t — that’s to say, make sure whatever system you’re building isn’t so efficient it can’t find its way through drastic weather.

Happy sailing.

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