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What if much of what you know — or think you know — about the innovation process is wrong?
That’s a question Eric von Hippel thinks many companies — and businesspeople — should consider.
Von Hippel, who is a professor of technological innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as a professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, has spent much of his professional career doing research that has led him to a radical conclusion: The traditional view of the product innovation process is flawed. In the traditional view, companies get too much credit for product innovation, according to von Hippel — and users get too little.
Surprisingly often, von Hippel argues, ideas for new or improved products come first from users who develop improvised versions to serve their own needs. Manufacturers then may discover, polish and capitalize on user innovations — particularly if those innovations begin to catch on with a group of users. Particularly important, in von Hippel’s view, are lead users — sophisticated users who are the most likely to innovate to satisfy their own needs.
I spoke with von Hippel earlier this year. In this brief excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity, von Hippel talks about how to identify such lead users.
MIT Sloan Management Review: You’ve made the distinction between such lead users, who as I understand it are advanced users who are proportionally more likely to innovate — and ordinary users. How do I, as a manufacturer, identify who those lead users are? Where do I find lead users?
Von Hippel: What you do is you go to the leading edge of your market, and you find the people who have the most extreme problems now. For example, in a case study that’s in a videotape on my MIT website, 3M was looking for surgeons who were lead users in infection control. They found that surgeons who operate on cancer patients had developed improved infection control methods, because often those patients were immune-compromised, so they were really getting bad infections. I have free materials on my site that people can use to conduct studies to find “lead users” in their markets.