Innovators face the bold mission of rethinking their organization’s current business units and disrupting industries. Faced with those monumental tasks, it could be easy to forget where their focus point should lie. Today’s innovators, regardless of which business function they sit in, need to have the customer and their experience be the center of everything they do.

More often than not, innovation projects fail because they fail to consider the needs of customers and end-users. New initiatives can leverage the latest emerging technologies or be shepherded by an enthusiastic executive, but it’s all too easy for a promising project to fail when it hits the market.

Any innovator can tell you it’s easy for external pressures to push a project off track: conviction for an idea, the pace of technology, input from other functions or changes in the competitive landscape can all shift focus off what really matters. Even more powerful is the gravitational pull of your own organization to dilute innovation efforts, and the constant struggle to push beyond the “This is how it has always been done” mentality may also take you off center.

Too many times, however, innovation labs face a fundamental disconnect between what the company wishes to produce and what the customer experience and journey demand.

Top companies operate in a world where customer experience and human-centered design are the norm, not the exception. Technology has enabled an incredibly rapid pace of disruption and consumers now expect how they interact with companies, at home or at work, to be centered on the consumer and how they live and work. No industry, even the least sophisticated, is immune from this. Innovators must constantly make sure their company views the world through the customer’s eyes and not yours.

Secondary Research Isn’t Enough

Too often, innovators lean on consultant reports and industry studies to guide their decisions or to benchmark their projects. To get impactful data, you need to study your customer like you are an anthropologist. This is more than just taking comments from a lost sale on face value, relying on anecdote or reading an industry study. By being an anthropologist, you need to study the behavior of your customer and know their journey intimately. Go and see them in the environment where they interact with your products. Be disciplined and unbiased on your approach, or else the gravitational pull of the company may mask the reality from the customer.

Keep a Clean Experimental Environment

It is critically important to get unbiased feedback and create an environment where you are able to test, learn and adjust. As an innovator you may be “leading the witness” to a solution you love so having a process or environment where you are able to translate the perceived feedback to a real experience is critical. It is important to note that is not just applicable to tech-based solutions but your company needs to have a real feedback loop for all solutions that allows you to fail fast and adjust to the real customer need.

Align Metrics Appropriately

As a growth leader, you need to make sure that not just your products or services are human-centered but your company’s metrics and processes are aligned as well. Nothing will derail the most elegant customer-centered design than a measurement system that works against it. If your sales and service teams are rewarded off of product-centered instead of human-centered metrics, you will always lose no matter how good the innovation. If your business metrics don’t include some balanced customer-centered metrics, your leadership team will lose interest as well.

Customer Awareness Must be Cultural

Likewise, the culture and capability of the organization need to reflect your orientation towards being a company centered on the customer experience. C-suite messaging, brand execution and internal talent development need to reflect the desire to be an experience-based company or else it will not be sustainable.

The steps above could be a major, systemic undertaking for any company. Even if you as an innovator do not have the ear of the CEO, you can help your company move to being human-centered. What do you control in your function or environment that you are able to reorient to the customer? Do you create the right amount of tension in your metrics or process to force the debate if your output serves the customer? What is your change plan to provide the proof points to help your leader be an innovation hero as they focus on the customer experience?

It is an incredible time of disruption in business and the customer experience is right at the center of shaping change. Are you ready to change?


Arguably one of the most knowledgeable intrapreneurs around, Alex Gonzalez has helped lead transformative innovation and build growth processes for the likes of GE and Equifax, among many others. Today he’s the founder and managing director at Creative Growth Ventures, where he splits his time advising, training and consulting with executives, corporate innovation teams and high-growth startups.