Sir Isaac Newton discovered the principle of gravity when he was hit by an apple while sitting under an apple tree. Picasso claimed his best inspiration was from other great artists. Todd Teske, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Wauwatosa based Briggs & Stratton Corp., says he drew some of his inspiration for innovation from a trip with his wife to buy a washer and dryer. Your first instinct is to laugh, until you realize Teske is dead serious. On the trip to buy a washer/dryer for what he estimated to cost about $600 total, he ended up spending $2,600 for a Whirlpool washer and dryer. He kept asking himself, ‘How had that happened?’ That ultimately led to a trip to Michigan to meet with the top officials from Whirlpool. The core to Whirlpool’s innovative products is what has been named ethnographic research. It may sound like something a college professor would come up with, but what it really means is sending cross-functional teams of designers, engineers and marketers out into the world to study what consumers actually do on a daily basis. They take video cameras with them to record how customers actually use their products, and they explore the values behind the customers’ actions. “Neuroscience has shown that most human decisions are largely emotional, and made within seconds. It’s the postrationalization that can take days, weeks or even months. What that means is that most people can’t actually tell you why they do what they do, or what it is that they want next. It’s only by closely observing them going about their daily lives, recording the struggles that they face and the dreams they’re trying to achieve, that we can really understand the unmet needs that give rise to new business opportunities,” said Lara Lee, senior vice president of Customer Experience Design at Lowe’s Home Improvement.

The Briggs & Stratton team began shooting video of users starting a lawn mower. One video clip captured a woman screaming with joy because she started the mower on the first pull. What interested the team was the low expectation that this woman had in her ability to start the mower. It got the team thinking about innovation from the user perspective to solve problems. That one video has inspired the engineers and marketers at Briggs to roll out innovative products that appeal to users seeking a different experience with power equipment, such as:

»» Quiet Power Technology. Consumers complained mowers were too noisy. The new QPT resulted in mowers that are 65 percent quieter than previous mowers.
»» Mow ‘N’ Stow. Homeowners complained they needed to free up garage space, so Briggs engineers designed an engine on a lawnmower that can be stowed vertically and uses 70 percent less garage space.
»» InStart. Consumers wanted an easy start for lawnmowers. Briggs helped pioneer the automotive style of simply pushing a button in not only walk behind mowers, but riding mowers as well.
»» Pressure washers. Briggs knew women represented a large percentage of its customers for pressure washers, so it made them lighter, more powerful and easier to use for men and women alike. There are two fundamental cultural norms that underlie this approach to innovation.

  1.  Leadership. It starts with humility. This is counterintuitive to what most Americans think leaders are all about. CEOs are supposed to be the smartest people on the planet. But in fact, most leaders are not geniuses. Really, truly honest ones are willing to learn and listen and absorb. Teske leads by admitting he doesn’t know the answers, which speaks volumes for everyone who works at Briggs. This leads to a culture of intellectual curiosity by everyone. Great companies are laboratories of great learning that leads to more innovation.
  2. Looking for new customers. Care-fully observing consumer behavior can lead to the discovery of new potential customers who have different needs than current customers. This opens new market space that expands the boundary of an industryand translates into true innovation. Embrace these two cultural imperatives and your company will end up in a blue ocean, rather than competing for the same customers in the red ocean.