The FOCUS Innovation Framework: A Customer-Centric Approach to Innovation for the 21st Century

INTRODUCTION

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to say the word “innovation” than it is to actually do innovation? The rapid advent of a series of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality (AR) and the metaverse have organizations scrambling to innovate. Most of those efforts are destined to fail, however, as 90–95% of all innovation projects fail.

As an emerging technology and innovation practitioner who focuses on the customer experience (CX) and customer-facing technologies, I have a theory on why many innovation exercises fail — too great a fixation on specific technologies. Organizations say they want to try a particular technology and set about testing it to place a stake in the ground. Doing so, however, places a priority on the technology. Instead, with customer facing technologies, the goal should be to concentrate on customer need.

Let’s be honest here. There’s a reason we prioritize the technology du jour at the beginning of our innovation attempts. Yes, we want to kick the tires, if you will, and understand the capabilities of the technology. It’s also the case that experimenting with technology is fun and exciting. Those early explorations can boost team morale and get people re-engaged with work. All of these are noble rationales as the outcome of your efforts. Unfortunately, doing so rarely results in truly positive outcomes for customers.

In this post, I propose that a key to success is focus or, in this case, F.O.C.U.S. The FOCUS Framework is one I developed for my own practice and it is designed to prioritize the customer. Specifically, the components of the FOCUS Framework are:

  • Frame the Question
  • Obsess over the Customer
  • Collaborate with other Teams
  • Unite around an Idea
  • Speed to Market

Let’s get into it.

FRAME THE QUESTION

At its core, this component of the framework is designed to help ensure the innovators are pursuing the right outcome(s). It establishes your overarching strategy.

Too often, teams find that the objectives they sought at the outset of their projects are not the right ones. Either the goalposts change or as understanding becomes clearer, the team comes to the realization that they’re chasing the wrong goals. The goal here is to minimize the risk of changing outcomes. You do that by doing the prep work early — measure twice, cut once, if you will.

Questions to ask yourself as part of Framing the Question are:

  • What challenge do customers face and how, specifically, do you want to address this challenge?
  • What could you achieve that would make your management take notice of this effort?
  • How does what you want to achieve tie back to a corporate or assigned team goal?
  • What measurable outcome would you use to gauge success or failure?

Once you have considered the questions, it is time to develop an initial hypothesis. It is the hypothesis that ultimately may be used to frame the question. The hypothesis should take the form:

As a result of …
(some activity/activities your team will perform) to address (challenge being faced),
(some SMART goal you would like to achieve)
will occur among the (customer group you will target)
In line with the (specific corporate or team goal to which your project tracks back)

It is important to note that you will not complete the entire hypothesis in Framing the Question. The goal here is to put stakes in the ground and set a direction. The final hypothesis will be set after the Unite around a Vision component of the framework.

An example of a hypothesis might be:

As a result of (the implementation of a specific set of activities using particular technologies) to address decreased customer satisfaction, repeat customers associated with the Jen Ashton persona will spend 13% less time having customer service issues resolved and will experience a 10% increase in customer satisfaction in line with the team goal of delivering an improved customer service experience.

This hypothesis is measurable, addresses a specific challenge and ties back to goals established by the organization. But what are the activities associated with the hypothesis? To answer this question, we must move through the remaining components of the framework.

OBSESS OVER THE CUSTOMER

I once went on a client call to pitch services. The company was a large, well-regarded healthcare brand. As the team exited the elevator, there was a large hand-painted sign — the exact language of which I don’t remember — that said something like “We put our customers at the forefront of all we do.” During the pitch conversation, I brought up the quote and asked how they talk to their customers. The short answer is, they don’t. In that specific case, there are some reasons for that as their customers are often healthcare centers rather than the patients that are the end users. The sentiment, however, is not unique to that company.

Many organizations know their customers anecdotally but do not take the time to understand them. Success in innovation requires knowing your customers well enough to be able to make intelligent decisions about what they will need to address tomorrow’s needs. Being able to predict what your customers will need tomorrow requires being passionate about their needs — obsessing over them.

Let’s be clear. Obsessing does not mean being stalkerish. That’s scary. Rather, it means establishing a customer-centric, insights driven approach to your customer experience (CX) a core function of how you operate. When you do that, obsessing over the customer becomes easier. Rather than having to do the research just-in-time, you’re able to turn to your marketing research repository, customer data platform (CDP) or other tools to identify the precise market segment you should address with your new project.

Among the elements you want to be sure are part of your insights driven approach are:

  • Customer Personas — Detailed profiles of target customers that involve gathering information about customers’ demographics, interests, motivations, and pain points. Often one persona is done per target high level market segment
  • Empathy Maps — A tool, in the form of a diagram, that helps teams to develop empathy and create a user-centered perspective by visualizing users’ thoughts, feelings, needs, and behaviors. An empathy map typically consists of four quadrants, “Think and Feel,” “See,” “Hear,” and “Say and Do.” By filling each quadrant with observations and insights gathered through research and interviews, teams can use this information to inform the design and development process
  • Ethnographic Research — Research method that involves observing and studying people in their natural environment to gain an in-depth understanding of their behaviors, cultures, and social interactions. Ethnographic research aims to uncover the meanings and motivations behind people’s actions, as well as the social and cultural contexts that shape their behaviors. It often involves techniques such as participant observation, interviews, and document analysis. The resulting insights can be used to inform product design, marketing strategies, and the development of user-centered solutions
  • Customer Journeys — Diagrams that illustrate the various touchpoints and interactions customers have with a product or service. This includes their initial awareness, consideration, purchase, and post-purchase experiences. In each stage of the journey, businesses can identify pain points, areas for improvement, and opportunities to exceed customer expectations
  • Surveys and Questionnaires — Surveys and questionnaires allow businesses to collect quantitative and qualitative data about customer satisfaction, preferences, and purchase behavior. This feedback can uncover valuable insights into customer perceptions, identify areas for enhancement, and guide decision-making processes.
  • Usability Testing — Usability testing involves evaluating the ease of use and effectiveness of a product or service. By observing users as they interact with a prototype or existing product, businesses can identify usability issues, areas of confusion, and opportunities for improvement. Usability testing helps ensure that products and services meet customer expectations and provide a seamless experience.
  • Customer Feedback and Reviews — By gathering feedback from customer support channels, social media, online reviews, and other sources, businesses can identify common issues, trends, and areas for improvement

Yes. This can seem overwhelming. The thing is, obsessing over your customers doesn’t mean you start with all of the elements. You begin by developing personas based on the information you have on your customers as sourced from surveys and questionnaires, customer service feedback and other primary and secondary sources at your disposal. You build to having a full complement of market research resources that help you have a holistic view of your customers’ needs, their pain points and challenges where you can use innovation to fill a gap between their current state and their desired state.

COLLABORATE WITH OTHER TEAMS

For the past ten years or so, business magazines have heralded the arrival of the cross-functional team. These teams, composed of people from various departments, would be brought together to form the corporate equivalent of the Avengers. They would be more productive and efficient. That may very well be the case but for all that cross-functional teams may benefit organizations, it is always the case that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Corporate cultures are often too siloed to support the cross-functional team.

You have to break down that wall.

There is no interaction your customer has with your brand, products or services that is solely the result of your team. You may run the world’s most effective marketing department but the product managers, packaging development folks, web designers and many others still influence how your customers engage with your products. Corporate culture maintains silos customers don’t feel or see. The customer sees one company/brand and its products or services. Being customer-centric and obsessive necessitates seeing your brand the way customers do and eliminating the silos.

It’s not just about the customer, though. It’s also about results. A significant body of research into innovation and creativity concludes that teams made up of people with a diverse range of experiences are more likely to be successful than those comprised of people from similar backgrounds. People with varied experiences see ideas differently and can envision uses that go beyond what your homogeneous team might have designed. You collaborate to improve your performance.

This means, as you seek to ideate about ways to address the challenge set out in the hypothesis, you bring in team members from other departments. You do not simply invite them to listen or even to “pick their brains”. Rather, you inform them about what you want to achieve and actively solicit their feedback and ideas about what you might consider doing. This can be done one-on-one or in a cross-functional ideation session. This part of the process is critical.

So, how do you actually encourage this type of collaboration? Here are things you can do:

  • Get Leadership Support — Ensure that senior leadership communicates a clear commitment to fostering innovation and collaboration. Ask leaders to set an example by actively participating in cross-functional teams and initiatives
  • Identify Key Stakeholders — Identify key departments or teams that your department needs to collaborate with. Determine which team members are most likely to be strong partners based on the objectives you’ve set
  • Turn to Innovation Champions — Identify and empower “innovation champions” within each department. These individuals should be passionate about innovation and act as advocates for collaboration and new ideas within their teams
  • Rely on Clear Communication Channels — Establish clear communication channels for sharing ideas and updates across teams. Facilitate regular meetings, digital communication platforms (e.g., Slack), and other tools that can help ensure everyone is informed and involved
  • Share Resources — Be willing to share both resources with other departments. Sharing resources like expertise, tools and data with other teams potentially makes more resources available to both of you — creating a mutually beneficial relationship
  • Lead by Example — Demonstrate your commitment to collaboration by actively participating in cross-departmental initiatives and showing that you value the input and expertise of other teams.
  • Celebrate Collaborative Achievements — Publicly recognize and celebrate successful collaborative efforts between your team and others. This acknowledges the hard work of your team and encourages a culture of collaboration throughout the organization

These activities are a starting point for the type of cross-functional collaboration that often leads to greater creativity and innovation success. When done well, they also can lead to greater commitment from colleagues across the organization as they come to value the successes of every team.

UNITE AROUND AN IDEA

For the past ten years or so, business magazines have heralded the arrival of the cross-functional team. These teams, composed of people from various departments, would be brought together to form the corporate equivalent of the Avengers. They would be more productive and efficient. That may very well be the case but for all that cross-functional teams may benefit organizations, it is always the case that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Corporate cultures are often too siloed to support the cross-functional team.

You have to break down that wall.

There is no interaction your customer has with your brand, products or services that is solely the result of your team. You may run the world’s most effective marketing department but the product managers, packaging development folks, web designers and many others still influence how your customers engage with your products. Corporate culture maintains silos customers don’t feel or see. The customer sees one company/brand and its products or services. Being customer-centric and obsessive necessitates seeing your brand the way customers do and eliminating the silos.

It’s not just about the customer, though. It’s also about results. A significant body of research into innovation and creativity concludes that teams made up of people with a diverse range of experiences are more likely to be successful than those comprised of people from similar backgrounds. People with varied experiences see ideas differently and can envision uses that go beyond what your homogeneous team might have designed. You collaborate to improve your performance.

This means, as you seek to ideate about ways to address the challenge set out in the hypothesis, you bring in team members from other departments. You do not simply invite them to listen or even to “pick their brains”. Rather, you inform them about what you want to achieve and actively solicit their feedback and ideas about what you might consider doing. This can be done one-on-one or in a cross-functional ideation session. This part of the process is critical.

So, how do you actually encourage this type of collaboration? Here are things you can do:

  • Get Leadership Support — Ensure that senior leadership communicates a clear commitment to fostering innovation and collaboration. Ask leaders to set an example by actively participating in cross-functional teams and initiatives
  • Identify Key Stakeholders — Identify key departments or teams that your department needs to collaborate with. Determine which team members are most likely to be strong partners based on the objectives you’ve set
  • Turn to Innovation Champions — Identify and empower “innovation champions” within each department. These individuals should be passionate about innovation and act as advocates for collaboration and new ideas within their teams
  • Rely on Clear Communication Channels — Establish clear communication channels for sharing ideas and updates across teams. Facilitate regular meetings, digital communication platforms (e.g., Slack), and other tools that can help ensure everyone is informed and involved
  • Share Resources — Be willing to share both resources with other departments. Sharing resources like expertise, tools and data with other teams potentially makes more resources available to both of you — creating a mutually beneficial relationship
  • Lead by Example — Demonstrate your commitment to collaboration by actively participating in cross-departmental initiatives and showing that you value the input and expertise of other teams.
  • Celebrate Collaborative Achievements — Publicly recognize and celebrate successful collaborative efforts between your team and others. This acknowledges the hard work of your team and encourages a culture of collaboration throughout the organization

These activities are a starting point for the type of cross-functional collaboration that often leads to greater creativity and innovation success. When done well, they also can lead to greater commitment from colleagues across the organization as they come to value the successes of every team.

SPEED TO MARKET

New projects can fail for numerous reasons. Miscommunications, poor planning, and dreaded scope creep can all lead to project failures. High on the list of reasons new projects fail is also time. When you and your team inaccurately estimate the time it takes to execute a project or take too long to long to complete it, you increase the risk of failure. That is a risk you can manage.

Innovation best practice suggests that constraints are a critical factor in the success of innovation. The idea is that when your options are unbounded your consideration set becomes too large. You have experienced that when someone asks what you want for dinner. Given no constraints, you ponder and think and come up with not having a taste for anything (or may be that’s just what I do). If someone gives you the options of Thai, Chinese or Middle Eastern, however, you can make a choice — or recommend a different option. Being bounded makes it easier to choose a path forward. The same is true for innovation.

For this framework, you can choose the constraints that appeal to you and your team based on what you want to achieve but a mandated one is being time-bound. Enforcing time pressure increases creativity and focus. It’s also the case that time is of the essence because time is your enemy. Taking too much time to execute can result in changing priorities, evaporating leadership support, and team members’ loss of interest or dissatisfaction. The increased productivity and reduced execution risks make being time-bound a benefit of this approach.

You should keep in mind that while the goal of innovation is to improve performance, the goal of individual innovations is often to experiment and learn. Completing your project is necessary to attain the insights that help your team know how to move forward — to achieve your next innovation. Constraining time helps make that possible.

So, what do time constraints look like? Every organization is different so what is optimal for one team and its approach is different from another. I, however, like ninety days. Ninety days are approximately a calendar quarter. Organizations work on quarters and, as a result, it’s complementary to the way both teams and leadership already work. Additionally, 90 days are simultaneously short enough for people not to lose focus and long enough to complete many projects and collect data that leads to learnings.

At this point, you might be wondering what being time-bound looks like in practice. Let me explain. The ninety days fully encompasses the entire project — from F to S. Doing this successfully requires some organization. For me, that means leaning into some inherently time-bound process like sprints.

A potential approach for the process could look like this:

Example schedule for FOCUS Innovation Framework

Before viscerally reacting to this, consider this is just one example. It is specifically designed to accomplish a few things:

  • Color coding to help visualize how much time might be spent in each different phase
  • Establish a rapid cadence — your goal is to keep driving that football down the field with a series of first downs (American football reference)
  • Show how you should be focused on lilliputian goals rather than Herculean ones; big hairy audacious goals are difficult to achieve with this timing
  • Ensure there is time within the ninety days to generate data you can use to assess performance (even if the project is scheduled to continue running beyond the ninety days)
  • Demonstrate how much needs to be done and how organized you have to be to make this work well

As ambitious as this seems, it is totally feasible if your teammates understand their roles and are committed to the effort. You, as the leader, will need to provide the cover necessary to help your team adhere to the time allotted for executing the framework. It only takes a couple of other demands when people are working on critical path items to derail the entire project.

Please keep in mind that this is one approach. Your actual approach may shorten or extend the time allotted to individual phases. You may also decide that a ninety-day effort doesn’t work for your team but one hundred and eighty days does. That’s your prerogative and I would encourage you to do what works for your environment.

SUMMARY

Innovating is hard. Even organizations that have known innovation cultures like Google still struggle to get it right. My intention with FOCUS is to provide a relatively simple (compared to other innovation frameworks), intuitive approach you can use to get innovation right.

Can I be frank? The components of this framework aren’t rocket science. Frame the question? Duh. Know your customer? So obvious, right? Work with peers outside of your domain? That makes sense. The thing is, people don’t do those things. People don’t create hypotheses and they don’t know their customers and they don’t bring in anyone who isn’t on their team. And, they fail.

Honestly, I can’t guarantee you that you won’t fail, too. The beauty of innovation is that, if you see the process through to the end, failing can still provide education, insights, and inspiration. That’s the worst that happens when you see the process through. The best that happens is you achieve your goals, realize success and are on your way to creating a culture of innovation that helps your organization thrive.

Good luck!