Collaboration with customers to come up with new ideas is becoming an increasingly popular idea. Customers can be a great source of ideas for new products and product extensions. Having done collaborative work with customers since 2003, I have seen a number of techniques used--some that work and some that don’t work so well. In all that time, one thing consistently matters and can make or break collaborative efforts.
In collaborative work, try to do too much too fast and your customers will fold under pressure. And in the folding, there go your new ideas--all squished and wrinkled beyond recognition.
That seems pretty obvious. After all, collaboration is often an iterative process. You present the need to collaborate to customers, give them some stimuli to start reacting and building off, give their feedback to the development team who builds them out a bit more, vote to narrow down the field, then customers and the development go back and forth, rinse and repeat, to further build and refine the best ideas. Iterations take time. To put quality thought into each iteration is not something that benefits from lack of time and rest.
But in these days of instant gratification and tight deadlines, the temptation to shortcut the process can be quite strong.
The shortest successful timeframe I have been involved in was 8 weeks. The longest was 6 months. I have done week long collaborative efforts, but I have to say, the new ideas were just ok. The six month efforts produced some products and marketing programs that ended up quite successful and innovative.
Why does it take time?
I mean, really, with Internet and App-based platforms, we ought to be able to collaborate in nanoseconds, right?
Quality collaboration is iterative and it begins by understanding customer pain points and practices. The development team can then create very basic ideas to serve as springboards and start the collaborative process. Customers can also be involved in the creation of these bedrock starter ideas. But that all depends on the development team and the customers having time to digest and understand the context of the pain points and compensating behaviors, then be able to think deeply and creatively within the bounds of the mission. In my experience this needs a minimum of a week or two to result in quality creating. Rush the process, and you will get ideas that are flat and obvious. Innovative, paint-point-relieving ideas only come from being able to give the building of the ideas some quality thought. That goes for both the customer and the development team.
How much time is ideal?
I have seen the best results from three to six month long engagements. However, we have done really good work in just 8 weeks. The Eight-week timeframe did require some intense teamwork, great focus, and amazingly quick turnaround, but with all that in place, as it was, it resulted in going from zero ideas to 5 well thought-out ideas in about two months.
I have been part of shorter efforts--some as short as five days. While they produced some decent ideas, none of the ideas were amazing nor that well-developed. They still required some refining work on the back-end that would be subject to the committee efforts that let internal capabilities and prejudices dictate changes that move the ideas further and further from the customer. And, if you think about it, the time from start to finish is really more like a two, three or six month collaborative effort, just minus the collaboration with the customer for most of it.
While your urgent need for consumer-centric concepts may be completely justified by high pressure deadlines from above, it’s good to remember that customers don’t face those same deadlines. Putting your time pressures onto consumers is not only unfair in the extreme, it typically results in a bit of a hot mess for customers and your development team alike. The results are ideas that are obvious, two-dimensional, and likely don’t fill a need or relieve a pain point well enough to be appealing.
To be successful in collaborating with customers, take the time to do it right. And remember, in the immortal words of one Mick Jagger, time is on your side. Yes it is.