What Can a Coffee Cup Teach
You About Innovation?

Coffee CupSometimes lessons come from the most familiar and mundane places. With all due respect to the makers and marketers of disposable coffee cups and the lids that cover them, I never would have looked to those products as sources of learning.

That changed when I read Benjamin Wallace’s recent article in BusinessWeek. In it, the author lists some of the latest innovations in disposable coffee lid design. For most of us, the lid on our morning coffee is an afterthought.  Indeed, almost all of the 14 billion coffee lids sold in the US last year ended up in the trash, so it might not be the first place one looks for ingenuity. But to the folks at industry suppliers like the Solo Cup Company, who are coping with the closings of local coffee shops and the related trend toward consumers brewing more of their own joe at home, developing innovative products with higher margins is a key to growth.

Some of the innovations Wallace describes:

  • The Xpress Lid, which turns your paper cup into a small pot of French press coffee
  • A cover that doubles as a caddy for creamer and sugar
  • The Coollid, incorporating a reservoir that cools each sip of coffee prior to consumption

What’s in a lid? Well, a lid can mean a little, but it can also mean a lot. Each of these products solve problems that I instinctively knew I had, like hoping those little creamer cups don’t leak in my pocket when walking to my car, or burning my mouth on the first few sips from a cup. But aside from my “oh, that’s kinda cool” reaction, where’s the lesson in all this?

From reading countless voice of the customer interviews we know that when asked about the subject of innovation, B2B customers often struggle to articulate the solutions they want from their suppliers. Asking customers to define their own solutions yields ideas that are often limited by their own visions of what’s practical or possible. As a result, the responses often fail to create the insight and inspiration to look for a better way. If the folks at SmartCup would’ve asked what improvements I’d most like to see in a coffee lid, I guarantee you I would not have come up with a disposable French press as a solution.

When looking to meet your customers’ needs through innovation:

  • Observe them in their natural surroundings
  • Document their problems and frustrations
  • Rather than ask what innovations or product fixes customers want, encourage them to describe their experiences – both frustrations and joys – when using your products
  • Invite customers to explain how they use your products and what “workarounds” they’ve come up with to make using the products easier
  • Use the information you’ve gathered to engage in some “what if we could….?” thinking with your colleagues to generate new ideas and potential solutions

Until recently, I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have looked to the lowly lid as a fix to my coffee woes, much less as a source of innovative thinking.  Lately, though, I’ve been using my morning coffee cup as a reminder to think differently about my own business. Try it – maybe it will work for you, too.

Eric Engwall, Managing Partner
E.G. Insight

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