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  • Andrew Glaser

How To Innovate Like Steve Jobs: Solving The Innovation Paradox

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Here is a controversial Steve Jobs Quote related to his innovation philosophy:

“Some people say, "Give the customers what they want." But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, "If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'" People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” ― Steve Jobs

Much has been made of this quote. Some feel that this only applies to the consumer electronics field in which Apple plays. Some feel threatened by it. If your title were “Head of Customer Research” or something of that ilk, you might not like it very much either. Others point to this quote as an excuse to bypass any substantial research altogether.

Steve Jobs had a super power that he couldn't articulate

I believe that this interpretations are misguided. I think the answer is much simpler than that: Steve Jobs had a super power that most of us don’t have but he didn’t have the language to describe what it was. Imagine if superman couldn’t describe x-ray vision and there was no word for it. All he knew is that he could tell you what was happening in the other room. You might attribute this ability to brilliant intuition. Likewise, Steve Jobs had a superpower and couldn’t describe its mechanics. He had an understanding that asking a customer what they want so you can give it to them doesn’t work. He was essentially defining the Innovation Paradox in this quote and that insight alone is very powerful and has far reaching implications. Said academically:

If the following statements are true:

  1. People are terrible at predicting their own future behavior

  2. People are terrible at providing accurate causal mechanisms for their own past behavior

Then how can we possibly create replicable and actionable insights in a timely fashion that can provide a framework from which we can innovate?

Well established methods don't solve the Paradox

Currently, companies try to use focus groups, customer intercepts, surveys and more but, considering the paradox, how often are these methods providing the level of insights that can provide the basis for real and consistent innovation? I believe the answer is that they are not nearly as successful as they would hope. The statics around successful innovation is depressing. A study by the Corporate Strategy Board shows that mature companies attempting to enter new businesses fail as often as 99% of the time. Startups fail at least 90% of the time and of the 10% that do make it, how many are actually the success they hoped for vs. simply surviving? To wit, the most common cited reason of failure according to CB Insights is the lack of market need for their product. Startups and established businesses alike keep spending billions building stuff that nobody wants. But Steve Job’s track record is quite the opposite.

So, if neither you nor anyone in your company possesses what I believe was Steve Job’s extremely rare superpower, and you want to innovate, what can you do? The Jobs to be Done framework described in Clay Christensen's book Competing Against Luck, combined with advanced criminal and terrorist interrogation techniques provides the answer.

What is Jobs to be Done Theory?

Briefly revisiting the theory, Jobs to be Done is the notion that customers don’t buy a product or service, they hire it to make progress in their life. This progress is the job to be done and the customer doesn’t actually care about how the progress is accomplished. For example, there is an oft used example that people don’t buy a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole. They don’t care how the hole gets in the wall. If someone could snap their fingers and a hole just appeared, it would not be a bold statement to predict that drill sales would decline. When you ask a customer what they want, the customer will go straight to “the how" - the solution - even though they don’t care about “the how.” Unfortunately, due to the Innovation Paradox, people are terrible at knowing the job they are looking for. Big leaps in innovation occur when a product or service can do a job significantly better than what currently exists.

There is a BUT and it's a BIG BUT (insert childish giggle)

Here is the rub, while some aspects of a job in certain circumstances can be intuited, it is often impossible to intuit the full job. And even if you are smart enough to intuit some of the job, a tremendous amount of important details around the job will be missed, hampering speed and efficacy of the innovation. This is especially true if you are not an avid user of the product.

Imagine you are 25-35 and trying to innovate around adult diapers. How much will your intuition really help you? What questions would you ask? What would you try to observe? Honestly, how much do you really WANT to observe? How do you get someone to admit things to you that they don't even admit to themselves? Similarly, if you were an investor evaluating an adult diaper company that was launching a new innovative product, how would you evaluate its potential? It’s hard not to simply ask the customer what they like and dislike about their current adult diaper and what they think of the innovation. Perhaps that might add something incremental, but its unlikely to be predictive of any material change in demand.

Time to catch some criminals... I mean customers. Learn to interrogate

While the framework in Competing Against Luck is groundbreaking, to truly crack the Innovation Paradox, criminal and terrorist interrogation techniques are needed. While these techniques sound threatening, interviewees actually find the process therapeutic. These interviews get deeply personal. They uncover the very core of a person, what they have struggled through in their past, their aspirations for the future. Their insecurities are uncovered and their deep emotions come to light.

You know you are doing a good job talking to your customer if after an interview you summarize what you’ve heard, and the interviewee is shocked by what they went through to make a purchase. It should feel like they just made a breakthrough in a therapy session. That mutual breakthrough is the tip of the innovation arrow. This reaction is not product dependent. It’s true for iPhones, watches, sunglasses, pressure cookers, juicers, bicycles, ice cream, sofas, and anything else you can think of that is not a habitual purchase. See my post about a Mom's Sweatshirt to see some of the techniques in action and a heart-warming conclusion!

Once you are creating ah ha moments for your customers, you are in an advantaged position to innovate. You will be able to provide them incredible experiences that they didn’t even know that they wanted. You too will “read things that are not yet on the page” and possess the super power of Steve Jobs.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please sign up at the bottom of this page to have new posts emailed to you or shoot me a line if you want to talk about it further.

About me: I am a founder, builder, learner, executive, investor, strategist and innovator. An innovation and new venture expert on designing, developing and launching new products and services. A driver of transformational change through culture, strategy, team health and clarity. A life-long learner, reading a book a week and constantly seeking out new ideas and frameworks. I think big and get stuff done.

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