Yes, many innovation success stories emerged as lead user innovations. But they were primitive and costly, and they created appeal only to a few customers. For example, before becoming suitable for civilians to fly, the US air force and navy found airplanes far better alternatives to available means for dropping bombs. Similarly, in the 1940s, the US military found truck-mounted wireless communication devices very useful for Warfield communication. From military to space agencies, we find lead users of emerging technologies.
Lead users are creative consumers—pursuing the apparent limit of existing products in getting jobs done. They are not content with existing products and ad processes. Hence, they are generating ideas to improve existing ones, either by adding or modifying components, or changing the technology core. Often, lead users are after leveraging emerging technologies to generate and deploy those ideas with engineering. But lead user innovations do not create a growing profitable market, making innovations successful.
On the other hand, grassroots innovators are after finding alternative usages of matured technologies through craftsmanship. Unlike lead users like NASA or US military, Indian farmers find retrofitting motorcycles with plows for having a better alternative to tractors. Although there are many examples of creating large businesses and industries out of lead user innovations, there have been hardly any such examples around grassroots innovation. Hence, despite being a fertile ground for grassroots innovations, South Asia has no example of large businesses out of them.
Difference between lead users and grassroots innovation
From NASA to Indian farmers, we find creative urge of generating ideas by the practitioners on the field to innovate tools to achieve their mission objectives. But some of them are lead users and others are grassroots innovators. Both lead users and grassroots innovators are after ideas for making better use of available technologies to perform their jobs better. But there is a difference between them.
Lead users are after ideas for leveraging emerging technologies through engineering to bring innovation to their mission. On the other hand, grassroots innovators are reshaping matured technologies through craftsmanship to find less costly means. For example, Indian fisherwomen have innovated vertical western farming through rope and bamboo with their craftsmanship skills. Similarly, Bangladeshi grassroots innovators have fitted small pump engines with their three-wheelers for finding better means to paddling. On the other hand, the US Air force became the lead user of transistor-based onboard computers.
It has been found that grassroots innovations are not scalable, making them increasingly better and cheaper. Because matured technology cores used in grassroots innovations are not flexible to further progression. Hence, they do not support continued profitable diffusion, creating a growing customer base. But some of the lead user innovations show flexibility to continued advancement, making them increasingly better and cheaper. As a result, businesses and industries around lead user innovation keep growing, creating a market for the flow of ideas.
Scaling leads user innovation through engineering and incremental advancement
Both grassroots ideas or lead user innovations find a few customers in the beginning. Often, innovators themselves are customers. Invariably, lead user innovation emerges as a costly solution, economically viable for only a few selected customers. For example, a 5MB hard disk weighing one ton, in 1957, was not at all suitable for small businesses—let alone for individuals. For that was useful for the military. Hence, in the beginning, lead user innovations do not offer growing profitable business opportunities. But in certain cases, technology cores adopted by the lead users show amenability for progression. For example, the lithium-ion battery core used by leader users of the electric vehicle was responsive to advancement. Similarly, the wireless communication technology core was friendly for further progression. But the fuel cell adopted for electric vehicles in the 1990s was not equally flexible to improvement.
Unlike lead user innovation, grassroots innovations emerge as a cheaper alternative at the bottom of the pyramid. Despite it, they hardly grow as large businesses. Yes, being less costly, grassroots innovations find a few customers to get jobs done in a few specific situations. But they fail to keep growing, creating an increasingly larger market. The underlying reason has been that grassroots innovation cannot grow as a strong force of creative waves of destruction. Hence, they fail to overcome the barrier posed by the substitutions in the mainstream market.
Leveraging lead user ideas as incremental innovations
A recent write-up in the MIT Sloan Management Review finds that businesses in China are finding customers as important sources of ideas. For example, Philips has added new features and improved existing ones of electric shavers to adapt to the unique requirements of Chinese customers. Hence, electric shavers being sold in the Chinese market are a bit different from than ones sold by Philips in New York or Tokyo. Well, such changes belong to incremental innovation.
Similarly, Xiaomi has taken a customer-focused approach for fueling growth through innovations. These are incremental advancements of existing products for meeting the requirements of Chinese customers more closely. From smart rice cookers to air purifiers, Xiaomi has incrementally advanced almost 100 products, customized to market segments’ specific needs. Hence, Xiaomi releases prototypes in the market as soon as possible for collecting lead users’ inputs to update them. As explained, these are examples of benefiting from lead user ideas for incrementally improving existing products. Of course, they help sustain innovations in the market. But bigger innovation opportunity resides in growing lead user ideas as reinvention waves, causing creative destruction to existing products.
Fueling a creative wave of destruction
For successful innovations, ideas should scale up by being a creative wave of destruction. Hence, those lead user ideas which demonstrate reinvention of existing products, and having a large market, should be our target for scaling up. But the challenge is in selecting them. Innovators face pervasive uncertainties. Among them, primitive emergence and high cost are two major barriers. For example, a 5MB hard disk weighing 1 ton was inferior and costlier than the punch cards. Similarly, the digital camera demonstrated in 1974 also suffered from such limitations. Transistor radio, LCD screens, mobile phones, electric vehicles, automobiles, smartphones, personal computer, and television were no exception. But the underlying technology core was amenable to progression. Hence, innovators should focus on the nature of the underlying technology core for scaling up lead user innovations.
Managing technology portfolio for leveraging lead user innovations
As explained grassroots innovations are the outcome of creative urge around the matured technology core and craftsmanship. Invariably, they appear as cheaper alternatives. For example, sprinkles made out of discarded plastic water bottles are less costly solutions in certain cases. Similarly, in some situations, Indian farmers find motorcycles fitted with plows as a cheaper alternative to buying tractors. Hence, some farmers adopt them. But they are not scalable in making it increasingly better and cheaper. Hence, managing a technology portfolio is not very pertinent. Instead, innovators rely on intuition and craftsmanship.
But for deploying lead user ideas around emerging technology core we need to keep monitoring technology inventions. We need also engineering to deploy them. For integrating those ideas into existing products as incremental advancements we need to manage the technology portfolio. More importantly, if lead user ideas are a reinvention of existing products, there is a serious need for assessing underlying technology potential and continuous advancement for nurturing them as creative waves of destruction.