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Truly successful innovation is about needs NOT wants.

Does your target market really want a faster horse?

They may think they want a faster horse, but then as the eponymous automotive pioneer Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

This quote has been most commonly invoked when discussions ensue around technology innovation. The argument goes like this: is it better to ask your customers what they want, or don’t bother and instead innovate with commitment and a force of spirit which changes the world to your desire.

Henry Ford was definitely in the latter camp. However, what many of you may be surprised to know is that Ford’s initial success was short-lived. Over six years Ford’s market share fell from 70% to 15%.

There was no question that the Ford motor company was disruptive, probably one of the most disruptive companies of all time. However their killer application that enabled the disruption was the scale that Ford enabled as a result of creating manufacturing automation.

This same strict manufacturing infrastructure was also the principle reason for the rapid reduction in Ford’s market share. This was because it prevented Ford from continuing to innovate in line with market developments.

General Motors came into the market and countered Ford’s “any colour” statement with the mantra: “A car for every purse and purpose”.

There is no doubt that Henry Ford was incredibly successful and he achieved this by building what he wanted. This was the paradigm shift, this was the disruptive idea that changed the world. Arguably, he then failed to innovate. Once he had established a new world, he failed to ask the market what it needed.

I believe most technology start-ups who succeed in disrupting a market ultimately fail to dominate because they rest on their laurels. Buoyed by the initial brilliance of getting it right, they assume they always “know” how to get it right and keep doing what they want.

They may go and ask their customers what they want, which may or may not work. But everything changes if you ask your customers and prospects what they need.

There is an interesting neurological difference between the ideas of want and need. This difference is a fundamental key to phenomenal business success.

In our brains the idea of ‘want’ is driven by our neocortex. This is the most recently evolved, rational, thinking part of our brain that processes information and delivers rational thoughts and ideas. This was the part of the brain that would have requested a “faster horse” from Ford.

However, need is driven by our limbic brain, the primal part of our brain that drives our desires, emotions, instincts and feelings. This part of the brain deals with what we really need to thrive and excel.

When we ask our customers and prospects what they want we will end up with a list of empirical data based on the information that is available to them. Wants can change with the ebb and flow of daily life and are fleeting and transient.

For example back in the CD age if we asked users what they wanted they would probably have asked for them to be smaller, hold more music and not scratch.

But if you asked what their music needs were (irrespective of technology) they may demand immediate, cost effective access to all the music they like.

When we ask our customers what they need we access their instinctive desires, the fundamental drivers that will make them, and therefore their business, succeed. Needs uncover the primary business and personal principles, the fundamental essence of growth and success.

In start-up terms, traditionally the initial thrust of technological innovation is driven by the intuitive wants of one person or a small team. This can, and often does, result in the initial bloom of success. In Geoffrey Moore terms they will capture the innovators and they may even win the early adopters. But they often languish on the shores of Moore’s Chasm.

In 1999 Transmeta, a George Soros and Paul Allen-backed $100m company, launched a low power processor. Transmeta decided that the world’s largest laptop manufacturers wanted to use their new chip to extend battery life in lieu of processing power.

They got it wrong. IBM and Compaq actually needed their existing supplier Intel to make the power consumption of their incumbent processors more efficient. Intel did exactly that and in 2009 Novafora, Transmeta’s ultimate owner, collapsed.

The question is: how do we dominate a market? How do we win the early majority? How do we get from good to great?

Part of the answer must be to move out of the want and embrace the need.