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Part 1 of this three-part series examined the overall role the customer can and should play in innovation. We will now take a deeper look at five specific ways that Marketing can engage the customer in the innovation process, using examples from LEGO Group, a company that has used these techniques successfully.

1. Learn from your lead customers

Your lead customers (aka lead users) are those who creatively extend, enhance, or apply your product in ways you may not have imagined. As a group, they are an important source of innovation. At a minimum, you should identify who your lead customers are and stay in close contact so that you learn from them as they innovate. A more proactive approach is to recruit lead users and unleash their design potential.

When LEGO Group was designing Mindstorms NXT, the second-generation programmable brick intended for use in building robots, it hosted a two-day workshop at MIT with a group of end-users whose opinions they valued. The workshop produced numerous ideas and considerable feedback on initial design ideas. LEGO Group then developed a list of 20 top end-users, then hand-selected the top 5. This effort resulted in a panel of four lead users who helped design the Mindstorms NXT.

Dubbed the "Mindstorms User Panelists" (MUPs, or "Muppets"), the panel first provided its "wish list" of features and capabilities. As the design progressed, LEGO Group sent out specifications, then prototypes, for the panel's review and feedback.1

When two of the panelists attended a Mindstorms tournament at LEGO Group's headquarters, the Mindstorms team asked them to stay on for an extra day and proceeded to take them into the labs—the "inner sanctum" for research that was normally off limits to non-employees. Their observations in the lab resulted in additional design changes.2

This example illustrates the extent to which a company can reach out and engage its lead users. You may not have the resources to do everything LEGO Group did, of course, but you undoubtedly can take steps beyond passive observation.

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Leland D. Shaeffer is Managing Director or PLM Associates (www.plmassociates.com). Reach him at lee.shaeffer@plmassociates.com.