Eric Von Hippel – one of the leading academics in product innovation released his latest book – Democratizing Innovation as a free PDF under the creative commons license. (book download here). If interested, there is also a great interview by Peggy Anne Salz with Von Hippel at the Feature (here – via smartmobs).
If you are not familiar with Eric Von Hippel’s work, it can best be summarized as follows. Within your user base, there are so-called lead users. Those are the customers that go all the way to modify your product so that it works perfectly in their environment. Von Hippel posits that if you could tap those people (and usually you can because those users are not really interested in doing product development for your product – they want something that will fix their problem), it is in essence as if you were outsourcing your product innovation process free of charge. Von Hippel has many books and articles on the subject and all are interesting reads if you are into this field (look at his bibliography here).
While I am a big champion of listening to and involving your lead users (if you can find them) in the new product definition process, I don’t think you should stop there. There are other sources of ideas that may very well lead to product innovation as well – think of all your customers, all your employees, all your partners, etc. In the past it was hard (and expensive) to engage into conversations with all those constituencies. But with today’s technologies (blogs, wikis, forums, tagging services, etc.) your cost of engaging a large number of people in conversations about your products and in engaging them in sorting what’s good and bad is virtually zero (ok – I’ll admit – I am an optimist). In the process you will unleash other sources of innovation – such as context-shifting (when an idea from one discipline is repurposed for another), emergence, “new-to-the world” random ideas, and others.
And as a side benefit you may end up with a more “militant” employee base, customer base, and partner base from which to build your future business.