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How to develop innovations with the Lead User Method

Developing new products, services or even processes is expensive. Especially when they develop into flops. With the Lead User Method, you can integrate particularly advanced users into the creation process. In the end, you will receive a detailed concept for your product or process re-development. In this blog entry, you will learn how the Lead User Methodology is, what tasks an innovation partner is doing, and what traps you have to consider.

The Lead User method is used when a company has already completed a roadmap process and has defined a strategic search field. This search field can then be very precisely limited to a product group or a product.

When is the lead user method appropriate?

Product search fields are found when you are looking for areas in which you have not placed any innovations on the market for a long time. Typically, within such product areas the competition hardly offers anything new. The products of different manufacturers are usually only distinguished by the brand.

You can also start the Lead User Method without a roadmap. That is, when it is obvious which products you want to develop, or even have to develop. For example, if the patent for one of your cash cow products expires in the foreseeable future, then you have to bring something new to the market to avoid economic problems.
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The four stages of a Lead user project

The project itself is carried out in four stages. In each of the four steps you have to work very precisely in order to get useful final results. If you have not worked through one level accurately enough, it is best to go through this level again before devoting yourself to the next. Use your innovation partner as a sparring partner. He will tell you when you have successfully completed a level and when not. In this way, it also protects you from unnecessary financial expenditure: each stage is more complex than the previous one, and thus also involves more costs.

1. Form your internal project team

In the first step, you assemble your internal project team. It should be as interdisciplinary as possible, in order to be able to assess and assess trends and needs from different perspectives. The team should comprise around five people.

Very important are those who teach the promoter model of Professor Eberhart Witte:

  • The power promoter: This is a person from the management or at least the second management level, who must have budget responsibility. The team member is in a position to make the result of the lead user project reality.
  • The specialist promoter: He or she comes from your research and development department. The specialist promoter is a specialist for the technical requirements.
  • The process promoter: This person is a product manager or someone from marketing or sales. The process promoter integrates the requirements of the market and the customer's point of view.

At the end of the first phase there will then be a constituent meeting of the project team, which takes place in phase two.

2. Specify the search field, set the Lead User profile and define analogous fields

This phase is about narrowing down the search field as precisely as possible. However, if you set yoverly narrow limits to your search field, the path to creative solutions is barricaded. In other words:

Your search field should be as narrow as necessary and as wide as possible.

An important question to be clarified in this step would be: Which technical procedures are allowed and which are not?

It is also important to define the date for the completion of the prototype. If this does not happen, the lead user procedure usually results in science fiction concepts, which are never realized.

In this phase, the search field must also be clarified with the relevant trends and customer requirements in this area. Here, it is important to include external points of view. Otherwise you run the risk of stewing in your own juice.

You can also group the relevant trends in a priority matrix. For example, the trend of energy efficiency is currently more important for industry than compact size or the size of plants. The Lead User profile is created based on the trends and needs.

In this phase, you can also look beyond your own industry. Sometimes the same challenges or even solutions to a problem exist in other sectors.

As far as the definition of analogous industries is concerned, another important tip: focus on those sectors that are technically more advanced than yours. Car constructors are happy to look at aircraft construction here. The AntiBlockierSystem (ABS) was developed first for airplanes and then adapted for motorized traffic.

The exact definition of the search field and the determination of the relevant analogous areas then form the basis for phase 3: the search for the appropriate Lead Users. The participants of the second meeting in which your innovation partner also participates, precisely define their exact profile.

3. Find relevant Lead Users

A Lead User is an advanced user. The term comes from Professor Eric von Hippel, who coined this term at the MIT in the 1980s. He has investigated market successes more closely and has discovered that most of them have also helped customers (users). A Lead User must have two characteristics:

The Lead User must be one step ahead of the mass market in terms of its needs and information. The Lead User has to take great advantage even from the innovation that needs to be developed.

To get a more detailed picture of a Lead User, read the portrait of Thorsten Kern, who is driving forward innovations in the automotive industry. In order to get to potential Lead Users, you will make a sample of your customers, which corresponds to the profile you are looking for. The external innovation management service provider now selects 10 Lead Users in several stages for each group (target market plus analogue branches) defined by the participants.

  • At the beginning, your innovation partner will contact the potential Lead User by telephone to talk to them about half a to three-quarters of an hour through the project and the search field.
  • A research analyst from your innovation partner will then complete a questionnaire with the people selected in the first round. This focuses on the search field and the relevant trends. Particularly interesting for the third round are people who already present solutions for the problem presented here.
  • In the third step, the project manager of your service provider meets the potential Lead Users in their personal environment. This conversation is not just about whether the conversation partner actually has good ideas, and has not only swung big words on the phone. The project manager also researches whether the person concerned is workshop-friendly. Meeting potential Lead users personally is also essential, as the entire project becomes more binding for them, and the project manager can possibly take the fears and uncertainties of the people. Because: Lead Users do not receive a fee for their cooperation, but only a replacement for your expenses.

At the end of the third phase, a meeting between the innovation partner and your project team takes place again. Here, your service provider then presents the potential Lead Users found by means of a brief profile. This contains the more precise description of this person and the ideas she has expressed to the search field. At the end of this meeting, you are holding the Lead Users as contracting entities, with whom the second-day Lead User conference will then be held.

4. The Lead User Conference generates solutions

The Lead User Conference takes two days and takes place in a conference hotel. A total of four moderators accompany this conference. Two of them deal with the content, two with the organizational. After all, all participants should feel comfortable all around, in order to be able to think and work creatively.

On the first day, the group is to get to know each other better and to generate as many ideas as possible together using a variety of creative techniques. Limiting factors such as price or technical feasibility are ignored in the first step in order not to limit creativity.

One way to generate ideas is to offer the so-called nagging. A group may "scold" about existing products or solutions objectively. Then the spear is turned around and the group is called to present solutions for the criticized properties.

Important: The group can never leave the defined search field.

At the end of the first day, the entire group tries to clutter all ideas into topics. The decision as to which areas the group will continue to work on the second day also falls at the end of the first day.

On the second day, the main facilitator divides the entire team into small groups. Each individual small group has to work out a detailed task book for a topic defined on the first day. The project team of the client must first determine the content of the content of this document. Typically, such a burden book contains a strength / weakness analysis, risk assessment, information about necessary partnerships with other companies, milestones, etc.

In order to give the projects a "face", a draftsman accompanies the two-day conference. This draftsman has always proved to be a very good catalyst for projects. For someone to convey a picture from his head in such a way that this can then put it on paper is a challenge. Each small group then presents their solution concept. By means of a score sheet, each participant of the Lead User conference will then vote on each presented concept on the basis of different dimensions such as "technical feasibility".

The innovation partner documents all the steps, and in particular the solution concepts including evaluation sheets, very precisely. For which concept you then decide as a client, is up to you.

Conclusion: Innovations with the Lead User Method

By defining your search field as precisely as possible, a Lead User project also leads you very precisely to your goal. At the end, this method does not provide you with many, but the right implementable concepts for breakthrough innovations matching the initially defined search field. A Lead User project also includes the know-how of people outside your company. This is part of the Open innovation family of methods, such as publicly-launched ideas contests.


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Jannik Böckenholt

As an expert for New Business Development, Jannik is your reliable companion for new commercial ventures. When it comes to the restructuring of innovation processes or the application of innovation methods, the learned project manager guides you to your objective step by step, while making sure there is fun along the way with his inspiring storytelling in the workshops he moderates.

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