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The words “listen to the customers” get sprinkled on product builders like magic pixie dust. After a while, it’s hard not to smirk when somebody even leans toward the line. Certainly there is no lack of trying by sensible product builders, however the mantra and intention belie the fact that engaging customers and users is a subtle process and that there remains a shortage of simple clear techniques that work well in real business settings with their inherent constraints and realities.

Along has come the new book, Innovation Games, by the ever-energetic Luke Hohmann with a new and powerful approach. I first met Luke when he was VP of Engineering at Aurigin, one of Inxight’s early customers. Luke was the rare customer who gave me no choice but to listen. And our products (and I personally) benefited greatly from the experience. And thus, though not a complete surprise, it is deeply satifying to see that Luke has crafted a suite of ideas and techniques that draws out in others the same spring of enthusiasium and creativity that he naturally channels himself.

The magic in Innovation Games lies in the power that play has to get the voice of customers speaking in real ways about real stuff. It completely busts the typical experience in the shallow “listen to customer” approach of Ask, Tell, Show. Asking a customer for their requirements more or less gets silence. Telling them their requirements to see if they agree gets shoulder shrugs. And showing them a prototype, gets a “hey, this doesn’t meet my requirements.”

In the continuum of methods from customer surveys and visits at one end, and outsourced analyst/marketing studies and focus groups and disciplinary research methodologies (for example, ethnographic studies of complex work environments) at the other, Innovation Games sit somewhere in the middle in structure and weight and maybe floating off the plane like a puck on air. Innovation Games are about drawing customers into a playful setup with disarming materials and structured facilitation.

Games—group activities in general—need the right structure to maintain focus and development toward a goal while leaving a degree of open-ended-ness to create pull and participation. The twelve Innovation Games each achieve this balance with varying sweet spots and uses. Choosing the right game for the particular objective is an important step, and fortunately the book provides the foundation and the specific guidance on this step as with other steps in using these games. Some games are best suited to identifying new product opportunities or guiding the process of product or product line evolution, while others are more suited to painting a picture of the customer environment and context or discovering powerful messages.

These last two uses are particularly good areas to leverage customer voices. People, when they feel they are being listened to, do indeed want to speak about the real things going on in their lives and they often speak in ways that inherently resonates more with others like them than anything devised by even the best devisers of lines. In fact, many qualititative research methods produce excellent results in these two areas. The relative power in Innovation Games comes from how quickly the game setup can get people into the right state, and skillful use can draw out positive collaboration and competition, while mitigating suspicions and cautions. Of course, a lean dose of risks and danger can create a necessary sense of reality and something at stake, the kind of subtle point that comes through across the book.

Though the book is quite complete in all the practical materials and procedures of a how-to nature, it also delivers a solid account of the principles and nuances of the approach and each game. Though the games can be applied as described, the foundation here invites a flexible and well, playful, adaption of the ideas and techniques. Such a combination of soundness and openness can only come from one place. Luke has been pursing methods for helping himself and others build great products all his career and he directly engages people in all directions as much as anybody I’ve ever met.

Innovation Games is not just another disconnected idea executed well, but a brilliant development in a long quest to engage people ultimately to be sure that they are served well. Most lately, Luke has been applying Innovation Games through his product consultancy, Enthiosys, to support his customers, real-live product teams in engaging their users and customers. Though it may appear that the games are too heavy or structured for small organizations or in early early stages of new product concepts, and too loose and perhaps too playful seeming for larger organizations and later stages and processes, the methods appear to have considerable range as designed even before considering the possibility of remixing the ideas. In fact, by now, the Innovation Games have been applied succesfully in many small and large companies, including Enthiosys clients Qualcomm, Emerson Electric, SAP and Trend Micro, and toward many of the different ends.

That said, however, all-in-all, I think the Games now really begin as the book is gaining attention. I’m excited to watch the action unfold. Heck, it’s time for me to join the play, so I’d love to hear ideas on this. And of course, you should approach Luke himself with ideas and possibilities, big or small, doesn’t matter, but a twinkle in the eye and a snap in the step does.

Quick jumps: Buy here. Read excerptshere and here. Other Reviews on official book site, and here , and here. Search blogs here

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