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December 17, 2012


Want great products? Start thinking out of the box

by Tom De Baere

bic pensEverybody knows you should be listening to your customers. Give them what they want, right?

And we all think we are doing that: because we have sales guys in the field talking to customers. Because we have marketing people doing desk research, going to conferences, having discussions with customers and what not. And the management team is having important meetings with key customers, and key staff that are knowledgeable.

They know what your customers want, isn’t it?

And then what happens? We all jump into product brainstorm sessions, in which you have lots of people venting their opinions about what customers want. We use the input from sales, marketing and the management team to influence the product or service we want to create.

In the end, this is what you get:

  • A product idea might come from a sales guy who needs it for 1 single customer.
  • An idea comes from a product manager who heard it at a tradeshow from 3 different customers.
  • A marketing manager made a study about a certain market and feels that this would be the future.
  • A product architect thinks that a product is needed because it would fit his vision of what a great architecture should be.
  • And some opinions are stronger than other ones, or just vented by people who have more power in the organisation, which in the end make it to a product easier than “weaker” people in the organisation.

Great products are not created like that

That’s totally wrong. Great products are not created like that.

Great products are created starting from the core business issues of a customer, and from the core strengths of your company.

Using these core business issues you need to think OUTSIDE of what you have today, and link it with your strengths. Start thinking out of the box, from the outside to the inside.

Thinking from the OUTSIDE to the INSIDE

bic razorsYou can compare it to BIC, you know, the guys who make pens?

How on earth did they start selling razors?

Because they looked at what they did from OUTSIDE the world of pens. They saw they where in the business of consumable products.

And that’s what made them decide to start selling disposable, use-once razors, but also lighters, correctors and a lot of other products.

They didn’t go out and talk to customers about pens. They listened to what their customers where really seeking, and then thought about that.

That’s what happens when you think outside what you do for your customers today. And take that back to the inside. And built them from your inner strengths.

Creating boxes outside the box

Recently I went to a marketing event ( in which Luc De Brabandere talked about this subject and took it further than only looking from the outside to the inside.

Once outside the box, we need to construct a new box or boxes (that is, new intellectual frameworks or models) to help us structure our thinking. Only once we have done so can we generate truly game-changing ideas.

That’s why Apple made the iPod, and not Sony.

That’s why Google Search also resulted in Google Earth

That’s why Philips, a consumer brand, dominates the healthcare market

That’s why Michelin, the tire manufacturer, is now the safety specialist.

That’s why IBM, the computer manufacture, has entered the consulting business.

It is a new paradigm in business creativity that won’t bring any new recipe, but will make you even more hungry!
To think in new boxes is the best way to survive … success!

You can find his full speech in French (sorry for english speaking blog visitors) here :

Do yourself a favor, and watch this. I promise, you won’t regret it. The guy is funny, inspiring and refreshing !

Further reading about this great thinking concept can be found by clicking here.

Warm regards,

Tom De Baere

  • Kerstin Roost

    Hi Tom, interesting article – I could not stop reading until the end, you got me. I agree, that great products are created starting from the core business issues of a customer, and from the core strengths of your company.

    But this is the start. And what you said earlier is all still needed! It’s not “totally wrong” as at the end you are looking for a great product, a competitive product; and also a future-proofed product.

    The brainstorming session is not so bad at all. This can be part of the internal listing process. And those different departments and people from the organisation can provide valued feedback/ideas you might want to check/think through/follow. If you structure the feedback you get from the brainstorm sessions (as perfectly pictured in the first part of your article) you can use this as input to also better understand the core business issues of the customer and the core strengths of your company (which is taking into account the market, competition etc.) .

    If e.g. the marketing manager made a study – and I am not talking about an opinion based on a phone call or one customer call, no a real professional study – this is great feedback. It’s the gathering and evaluation of data regarding consumers’ preferences for products and services.

    And, I think you still need the single ideas coming out of a project; those success stories you would like to repeat. Without these single ideas innovation is not possible; trying to be again better and test what you have heard from a customer, at a tradeshow etc.

    As a side note, Mario Guevara, CEO of BIC explained their success in the following way: “It is the result of the serious work we have been doing over several years, of our deep understanding of our markets and our constant search for ways to improve. It confirms the solid foundation of our business model – offer consumers quality products at the right price and that meet their needs or their desires. Our business has also benefited from the dynamic of developing markets, and despite the crisis, we performed well in developed countries.” …..Ergo, I am sure several market studies helped to define this. ;-)

    • Tom De Baere

      Hi Kerstin,

      The reasoning behind the 5 bullets is that all too often product creation is too much influenced by the wrong forces. Second, great innovations are often not born from the core business or existing products of a company. Apple used to be into computers, now they are into phones, music and apps.

      I absolutely agree with you that a brainstorm is useful to reflect on the input you gathered from listening to customers needs. Having a structured process that captures these needs, and seeing them confirmed by market studies is obviously nice. The bad thing about market studies is that everyone can buy them, and have the same knowledge as you have ;-). Obviously as always, being smart about the implementation makes you different.

      Thanks for the comment.