Playdough Innovation: Finding the True Value in Your Products and Services

Harvard Professor Dr. David Ricketts helps businesses understand how individuals create new value—and how to harness that understanding—for increased business growth. He shares:

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On the table in front of you is a simple, brightly-colored container of playdough. Your first thought may be, “Is this for me?” Your second thought is, “Can I open it?” It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid, a student or an executive—within minutes of sitting down in front of that colorful, tempting container, you will inevitably have playdough spinning through your hands as you pound out pancakes on the desk and contemplate that all-important question: to mix or not? (The colors, that is.) Class has not begun yet, so what can it hurt if you play a bit before class…or perhaps even during?

Toys provide a window into a key tenet of innovation: insight. Insight is the understanding of value unsaid by the user. Although it lurks as an unspoken idea or feeling, you instantly recognize it when you see it or hear it, and it is something that you’d immediately buy if you found it.

Toys are an amazing gateway into discovering opportunities for value in your products and services because they possess that ‘unspoken’ yet ‘known’ quality that makes them irresistible. Did you ever hear a kid tell you why a toy was fun? No, toys are either fun, or they’re not. Did you ever hear a child tell you that the technology in the toy was important? No, once again toys are either fun, or they’re not. Children don’t worry about the technology inside, nor can they express why the toy is fun, but they can inherently and immediately recognize value. And guess what? Your customers use the same unspoken thought process when they buy your products.

It is easy to get caught up in responding to customer requests or complaints about your existing products and services. Reacting to customer needs is natural, but ask yourself: Is it innovative? Innovation begins by understanding the opportunities for value that your customers have not yet seen or articulated. Think of Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, eBay, Pay Pal, and the myriad of other inventive and cutting-edge business like them. Did you know you wanted or needed these products/services before you saw them? Bill Gates once said that his biggest fear was the innovator who figures out what is next—the innovations that no one has seen before yet will change the way we do things forever. To be a disruptor in your industry and change your market, you must first understand the unspoken needs and values of your customers.

To illustrate this, I often ask executives, “Tell me why playdough is fun?” Think about it: Why is playdough fun? It’s not an easy question to answer. A dramatic insight came recently when, at a leadership retreat with executives, I asked a slightly different question. “Would virtual playdough be fun?” That question is simple to answer…of course not! But why is that? It is because the highest value of that little ball of dough is the way it feels in your hand. That sticky, warm feeling of dough in your hand is a value that can’t be touched by a billion other toys. Realizing that this feeling is the most important part of the playdough experience is insight at its core. That is the reason why we buy playdough. That is the reason why that brightly-colored container sitting on the table in front of you is irresistible…you just have to crack the lid open and play.

Now take a moment to think about your own products and services. What is that one piece that no one ever talks about but is the essence of why customers buy? This is the beginning of insight, the pathway to understanding the value your products bring so you can create the kind of new products that, when customers see them, they know they just have to buy. The executives could not identify the true value of playdough until it was in their hands, so to answer this question for your products, you too must get in and play. Spend time not with, but as the customer, rolling, smacking, twisting the playdough so you can experience their world and understand what is truly important. Identifying that which is core to your product or service’s value—yet remains unspoken—is one of the first steps to creating innovations that no one saw coming, and to establishing your company as a disruptor in your industry. 

For the past decade, Dr. David Ricketts, together with his colleagues at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH) at Harvard, has taught the next generation of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs how to create disruptive innovations. His keynotes share those insights and, through entertaining real world examples, he helps leaders and front line innovators understand how to develop disruptive innovation in their organizations.

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