Many great revolutions in business, those inspiring breakthrough innovations, come from an outward focus, not simply from inward thinking. There are many great dangers from inward thinking, one of which  is managerial ego, (Use the search box to read more detail about “Managerial Ego”.) The other danger is a high-risk of a disconnect from using yesterday’s old information to try to invent for tomorrow’s future.

To press the point a bit further. Inward thinking causes one to build tomorrow’s decisions on past paradigms that have worked spectacularly well, in the past. Yet, those same past paradigms  fail to recognize or adapt to the needs required to invent for tomorrow. Inward thinking imposes habits, old beliefs, comfortable and complacent patterned behaviors, each of which may be as destructive in a changed world of tomorrow as they were constructive in days past.  Looking inward can increase all manner of risks. Look outward.

The answer to most problems rests with the user, the consumer of your output, the customer. Let’s call those people stakeholders.

But you can’t simply go to your stakeholders to ask them to do your bidding. Let me use an analogy of a patient.  The psychoanalyst doesn’t rectify a patient’s deeply hidden emotional and psychological problems by simply asking the patient, “What is your problem?” Likewise, you can’t simply ask the stakeholder, “What do you need?”  Doing so will produce obvious answers. If those answers are obvious it will be visible to everyone else including your competition so will provide little to no competitive advantage for the immediate future, let alone the longer-term future. Yet, the answer does lay with the stakeholder. As the psychoanalyst probes, questions, intently observes the patient so, too, must you observe, probe, monitor, test, question, almost obsessively. You can’t just ask the stakeholder to do your “thinking and analysis”. You must do the heavy lifting yourself by digging deep within the stakeholder’s mind and current processes.

You need to spend serious time observing your stakeholder in action.

Breakthroughs come from studying the “How?” of their processes or usage. Almost anyone can become a great innovator by applying powerful observation.  Even in my tiny world as a business leader I uncovered and crafted several breakthrough innovations that not only went global but also resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in NEW revenues. Even my direct reports, who keenly “listened to” and observed our stakeholders, invented breakthrough products.  You can, too.  Go forth. Go for it.

Your first step to great innovation with a product or process is to get permission from your stakeholders to observe them in action. Then, observe deeply. Surveys and research statistics don’t quite achieve the same end game. Nor does focus groups. Both tend to channel thinking into limited directions and superimpose on participants, including you, the observer, an artificial structure that will limit your observations to the obvious.

Observing your customer is an art. The broader and more expansive YOUR knowledge and experiences the more successful the outcome from the observation exercise. The revolution is there, waiting for you to get beyond the first few obvious layers. Go deeper. Observe more intently. Watch their behavior during their use of the product, or the equivalent. While doing so apply your utmost creativity in search of paradigm changers. The revolution comes from an ability to see in more depth than the “common” or typical observer.