The art of inquiry, listening and pitching: how entrepreneurs can improve their chances of business success

Innovation is not just about technical mastery, but correctly identifying the customer pain point and pitching the solution.

19th Feb 2019
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It is not just empathy and storytelling, but systematic ways of structuring an innovation conversation that should shape a founder’s communication to the customer, speakers at the Creative Melbourne 2019 conference said.


Creative Melbourne

Creativity, compassion, and courage make the “three Cs” of solution success, according to Janet Sernack, Founder of ImagineNation, a business coaching firm for innovation culture leadership. The innovation process, she explained, involves phases like connect, explore, discover, design, and deliver.


Understanding of technology architecture and business models is not enough – it takes compassion to empathise with a customer, and address underlying emotional issues, the speakers said. One also needs courage to challenge assumptions, take risks, and outdo the competition.


Much has been written about the importance of positivity, optimism, resilience, and improvisation for entrepreneurial success, but there are factors beyond that as well, according to Janet. Innovators need to be inclusive of diversity, and be prepared for collision of views, she added.


Janet’s work builds on other research by innovation scholars such as The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen (see my book review here). The authors describe the five key skills of an innovator - association, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.


Examples of these five skills in action are, respectively, Google connecting academic citation models to Web search, HUL’s rural marketing with self-help groups, Scott Cook’s design of QuickBooks, Joe Marton’s use of Malaysian mangosteens to create the drink Xango in the US market, and Virgin Group’s market evolution from music to planes.


Innovation calls for proficiency in a range of conversations – within the self and the organisation, and outside the organisation, according to Janet. User empathy helps identify value creation in problem space, while the lean startup framework helps capture value in solution space (see my book review of Lean Startup by Eric Ries here).


Janet describes four types of questioning that should power the innovation process (see my summary in Table 1 below). These questions drive a range of divergence and convergence activities, which progressively expand the space of possible innovations and then narrow down on the best options.


Innovators should be able to operate with four types of mindsets, according to Janet. These are beginner mindset (empty mind with no pre-conceptions, ready to unlearn), growth (learning from challenges), whimsy (playing with the idea), and gamer (conducting experiments, taking risks).


Innovators are often passionate about their own view of the world, the customer’s problem, and the proposed solution, but need to have humility and openness in customer conversations. Janet describes four levels of listening (see Table 2 below), which help innovators uncover factual details of customer concerns while also empathising with them and designing solution features in a collaborative manner.


Janet cited other related work on multiple Brain Integration Techniques (mBIT) by Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka. It draws on neuroscience findings regarding intelligence of the head, heart and gut. Alignment between these diverse intelligences can help generate wiser decision-making, according to Janet.


A number of feedback mechanisms are available for founders to structure their internal story and the product pitch. For example, see YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas and startup pitch tips.


Other feedback methods based on ritual dissent and assent by Cynefin were presented at the conference by Craig Brown, CEO of Everest Engineering. This method can involve a three-minute pitch without slides to a group of professionals, who then offer uninterrupted criticism which is noted by the pitcher with their back turned (so as to sharpen listening skills and focus).


The digested feedback is presented to the project team, the pitch is refined, and then presented to another group – which only gives positive feedback this time. The debrief then leads to another refined pitch; the response this time is suggestions for improvement, product advancement, and phases of the product roadmap.


Other variations of the process can even involve blindfolding the speakers and participants, so as to further sharpen their listening skills. Suggestions offered at the workshop include audio recording of the feedback so as to capture emotional cues in customer conversations and pitch reactions.


In sum, the product discovery and pitch process cycles for innovation should involve intense amounts of research, review, reflection and refinement. In addition to market data, innovators need to master the science and art of customer conversations and pitch communication.



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