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How the Lead User Method has developed further

Many will wonder why we, Lead Innovation, have focused so much on the Lead User Method. When we first came across the method almost 15 years ago, we were immediately impressed and convinced that it could produce great innovations.

In contrast to traditional forms of market research, the Lead User:inside method in the context of Open Innovation is characterized by many advantages and higher potentials.

In the following article we would like to take a look behind the scenes at how we discovered the Lead User Method for us, what makes it so special and how we have constantly developed it further and thus innovated it. And we look back on the success of the Lead User Method.

The origin of the Lead User Method

The term Lead User and the Lead User Method was developed in 1986 by Eric von Hippel, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In contrast to traditional forms of market research, the Lead User Method is characterized by many advantages and higher potentials in the context of Open Innovation:

  • Lead Users who are trend-setting and advanced customers whose needs precede the requirements of the mass market are integrated. They have a high interest in new innovations and thus a high willingness to participate. In addition, they themselves have a high degree of solubility.
  • We work not only with customers from the target market, but also from analogous areas that have similar problems, business models or technologies.
  • The workshops with the Lead Users are not only about identifying needs, but also jointly developing solutions.
  • The main goal is radical, groundbreaking innovations.

Start of the Lead User Method from Austria

I discovered the Lead User Method during my time as a study assistant at the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. At that time I was working on a OMV project, where the potential of the method became immediately clear to me. The projects at the university were very bumpy. That's why I and two colleagues decided to offer the Lead User Method professionally for the industry. On December 13,2003 we opened the doors of the company "Lead User Network", today known as Lead Innovation.

We have further developed the method and created a practical concept for the implementation of a Lead User project. Our vision was to use this method to ensure sustainable innovation success. Unfortunately, we had to experience at the university that the students only carried out the project half-heartedly for the benefit of a positive note. They wanted to deliver something to the paying customer of the university, but unfortunately they didn't have the innovation success in mind.

Further development of the Lead User Method by integrating Lead users from analogue areas

Our first experiences have immediately shown that the simultaneous integration of Lead Users from the target market and Lead Users from analogue areas provide added value. This means that advanced and innovative users from fields with similar problems, technologies, markets or business models are involved. A well-known invention originating from the analogy of the aviation industry is the anti-lock braking system - ABS for short. Before it was installed in a car, it was already several years earlier to be found in an airplane.

In the course of time we have developed an extensive network and a database of possible Lead Users, which we can access during the projects. This enables us to cover a very broad spectrum of innovation and solution competence.

The integration of Lead Users from analogous areas has a high added value, because it expands the solution area and the participants have a high solution potential. It is important that the combination of Lead Users from target markets and analogue areas is parity, so that one group of people does not become too dominant. The aim is to maintain a balance between focus on the target market and innovation.

Extension of the Lead User Method by strategic elements

The upstream project format of the roadmap was an important advance for the Lead User method. The first step is a trend analysis, which helps to identify and prioritize the right search fields. The intensive examination and connection with strategic planning at the start of the project and the derivation of search fields from the timeline significantly increases the project quality by a clear orientation and alignment. In addition, the first big, seminal potentials that might otherwise not have been recognized are already discovered.

Increase in the quality of the Lead user method by consistently narrowing the search field

Our experience from almost 250 projects has shown us that the consequent narrowing of the search field in the course of the project is essential for project success. This is completely opposed to the growing mentality in quantitative innovation management, where you want to fill the funnel continuously and be open for as many ideas as possible.

But this contradicts the strategic approach, which focuses on the important goals and thus restricts the space for ideas. However, this does not mean that you do not see left and right to discover new opportunities outside the target area. However, in the innovation project we are intensively working on the limitation of the challenge or problem.

 Summer 2016

During our visit to the MIT's Innovation Lab in summer 2016, we had the opportunity to exchange ideas with NASA's innovation managers. They devote 90 % of the time in innovation management to problem containment and thus secure the strategic focus in order to identify the greatest possible leverage. This has also confirmed to us that the limitation and exact definition of the search fields increases the success rate. Instead of "as much as possible", we go for "as good as possible".

Long-term innovation partnership

Eric von Hippel observed that many companies carry out the Lead User Method as a one-off project. This was also our experience in university projects with students. Science has no interest in a repeated use and institutionalization of the Lead User Method as a standard tool. We find that a pity.

But what counts for us is the long-term, loyal and exclusive innovation partnership with Lead Users and, above all, with the companies, with a common goal: innovation.

Successes by the LEAD User Method

In the last 15 years we have carried out almost 250 projects in 13 countries. Our experience and learning effects, which have been incorporated into the consistent further development of the Lead User Method, have also greatly improved the success rate compared to the early days. We now have 14 patents for 15 projects. This also demonstrates the high degree of innovation of the Lead User Method. It is used to develop new products,

  • which are characterized by a high level of customer orientation,
  • address future trends and needs, and
  • which are also technological innovations.

Conclusion: How the Lead User Method has developed further

Even if a Lead User project means a higher effort, practice has shown us that the investment is definitely worthwhile. We live the credo of innovation also with the Lead User Method. On the basis of our many years of experience, we have continuously developed them further and adapted them to the requirements of the users. And so we dare to say that the innovation success is guaranteed by the consistent approach, the strategic orientation and the intensive involvement of Lead Users.


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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