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Powering Product Innovation: Q&A with MIT’s Erdin Beshimov

Powering Product Innovation: Q&A with MIT’s Erdin Beshimov

Erdin Beshimov is a lecturer at MIT and a Senior Director of Experiential Learning at MIT Open Learning and an instructor of the MIT Professional Education course, Powering Product Innovation.

He is devoted to helping learners from across the globe study innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship, founding MIT Bootcamps and the MITxMicroMasters program, and co-developing MIT’s open online courses in entrepreneurship.

Before joining MIT, he served as Principal at Flagship Pioneering, where he focused on water, energy, and materials ventures, and is a co-founder of Ubiquitous Energy—a solar technologies spinout from MIT.

Read on to learn more in Erdin’s own words about the Powering Product Innovation course, the Lead User Method, and more!

Please introduce yourself, and the course you’re teaching.
I’m Erdin Beshimov, a lecturer here at MIT, and Senior Director of Experiential Learning at MIT Open Learning. I work to create new pathways for learners worldwide to study innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship.

The course I teach – Powering Product Innovation – is all about giving businesses and entrepreneurs new tools to uncover and develop the next generation of products, tools, and services that will shape the world we live in. Rather than trying to generate these innovations in the traditional R&D environments, however, we teach businesses to learn from the people who know the most about their products and what consumers are looking for – the users themselves.

The course focuses on the ‘Lead User Method’. Can you explain what this is, and what makes it special?
The Lead User Method is a process for identifying breakthrough innovations that come from users rather than more traditional R&D processes. This may sound like a rather back-to-front way to look at it, but our research has found that so-called “lead users”—those users who have real-world experience with an evolving need and would personally benefit from a solution— are often the harbingers of the most exciting and effective innovations.

Think of the climber who modifies her gloves to be more comfortable and effective. Or the surfer who wants to film their sessions without destroying their camera and accidentally designs the GoPro.

This isn’t just a theoretical idea either. Research has consistently found that user-developed products tend to enjoy greater market success than those developed through traditional means.

We’ve found that millions of people around the world innovate in this way. Many of these innovations are relatively inconsequential or so specific that they would never be commercially viable, of course, but some are quite important – or, at least, have the potential to be. However, this raises the question: when presented with the fact that many people innovate, how do you select the most promising needle in the haystack?

That’s why we’ve invented a method called the Pyramid Method designed to help identify individuals who have the highest capability to innovate. On top of this, we’ve created a tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to search the internet for promising innovations. One of the big attractions of our course is that you will come away with a great method to harness AI that anyone can use to identify innovations.

How does AI technology integrate into the lead user method?
The method was first developed by MIT professor Eric von Hippel in the 1980s. In the beginning the most common way of implementing the method involved identifying a handful of lead users and inviting them to an interactive conference for a few days. They’d be interviewed and share their ideas with the in-house researchers running the event, and that’d be the springboard for innovation.

With the Internet, however, the lead users have all moved online. They post their ideas to social media or share them with like-minded users on forums and blogs. This makes it easier for businesses to uncover lead users, but it also comes with a few challenges – the biggest of which is the scale of information to comb through.

If we think back to those new and improved climbing gloves I mentioned earlier, the user who designed them might share their innovation on Reddit, or a forum, or Instagram, or their climbing club’s Facebook page. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and trying to sift through so many sources for great ideas can quickly become impractical – if not impossible – for a human analyst to handle.

This is where the AI tools come in. Human experts can designate certain websites and use AI to ‘scrape’ them and run the contents through machine-learning algorithms. These pick out the relevant information and highlight any innovations that might look interesting.

What kinds of businesses could make use of this course, and the methods you teach in it?
Honestly, any business that relies on innovation – and that’s almost all of them.

I know that sounds trite, but the world of business is more volatile than ever, and a lot of that is down to the increased pace of innovation. Consumers aren’t limited to what’s on the shelves of their local stores anymore, so if a new product or service solves an issue or offers a benefit they’ve always been hunting for – exactly the kind of improvements generated by lead users – they can quickly pivot toward it. If your business isn’t keeping an eye on innovation, it risks being left behind by those who are.

On a more individual level, the course is designed mainly for product developers and engineers—those with titles like the head or VP of innovation, as well as marketing teams. Entrepreneurs seeking innovations to bring to market can also benefit, as well as business group leaders – those who lead product categories and are tasked with updating their portfolio with new products and services If you’re a manager in that position, particularly in the early stage of the process, this course is fantastic for you.

How do you see the lead user method evolving over the next decade or so?
Two of the most important concepts we teach in our class are those of design cost and communication cost – how much it costs to design the product, and how much it costs for the creators to communicate with each other. These are two of the major contributing costs of innovation, but new technologies and the internet have been dramatically reducing both, and this trend is only set to continue.

For example, 3D modelling and printing technology have made it far easier for regular users to design products at home. At the same time, advances in the internet and social media have removed almost all the barriers that might have stopped innovators from communicating with businesses or other members of the community. This is allowing many more people to innovate, dramatically expanding the pool of innovation worldwide.

This is both an opportunity and a threat to existing companies. We now live in a world where there is much more competition coming from many more directions. At the same time, if you find a way to harness this new world it can deliver huge benefits.

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