Thousands of new ideas, new products, and new services are conceptualized every year—many of them very good. However, most never materialize. Why? Clayton Christensen, in his latest book Competing Against Luck, challenges readers that for their solutions to scale, innovators must clearly understand “the job that the customer is hiring them to do.” 

This week several very bright startup founders showed me their newest solution for helping their prospective clients. As I read the business plan, their solution seemed very reasonable and even cutting-edge.  But, when I asked who they were specifically targeting and what “jobs” those customers were “hiring” their solution for, I got some questioning looks.

Too often we create solutions in a near vacuum (in our office, our lab, our cubicle, in the shower, etc.) without enough qualitative customer input on what the customer is trying to accomplish in their lives, their families, their jobs. We create solutions that are–at least in our minds–very good, and then we spend all our time selling our ideas to potential customers.

Instead, we should begin by understanding our customers by listening—really listening, empathically listening to what they want to achieve. Listening is a skill that many of us just don’t practice nearly enough. “Listening to understand,” as one of my dear friends and executive coach Judy Campbell reminds me, is critical to building and implementing successful ideas. Too many of us listen merely to respond. Listening in this sense can be learned. Listening, observing, and asking broad questions that evoke richer discussions are skills all entrepreneurs, all innovators, and, frankly, all leaders must hone.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll discuss all three.