Inspiration is fuel for innovation and design.
For most challenges, the primary source of your inspiration should come from understanding or being inspired by users, customers and other influencers. Yet, most of us chain ourselves to our desks or hide behind self-imposed and self-erected barriers. I'm no exception. I can get focused on a design challenge and lose sight of what my users and customers need when I'm not careful.
The point is, the questions, needs, answers and inspiration are all out there, not in here. So, I'd like to propose another innovation measure.
Time Since Last Contact (TLC): The duration in calendar days since a meaningful, inspiring contact with a user(s) or customer(s)
So, what's a good number for TLC?
As an entrepreneurial individual, I'd like the number to be less than five days (basically a work week). Some hard-core entrepreneurs out there are likely giggling. Five days? Try five hours. Inspiration has a short half-life.
As the leader of an innovative organization, I'd strive to have my entire organization have meaningful, inspiring contact with my users and customers quite frequently. Sometimes, we rely on certain roles, like sales, as a proxy for the rest of the organization. While this seems efficient, I'd argue such compartmentalization is not effective for systematic innovation. There's something about seeing things for yourself that gets your creative juices flowing. You might spend a modicum of time considering what somebody else tells you, but I'm guessing you'll spend lots of time thinking about what you saw or heard firsthand.
To illustrate how challenging this is for large organizations, consider a hypothetical organization with 1,000 employees. Thirty people see a user every day, seventy see a user every ten days, a hundred see a user every fifty days and the rest, 800, see a user every hundred days:
The weighted average TLC for the organization is roughly 86 days! Sounds pretty bad, huh?
To attack this challenge, you might hold a structure inspiration day or do what Southwest does when it rotates its executives through the frontline to serve customers. (It's seemingly easier to achieve this in a service business.)
Not to complicate things too much, but there is a hierarchy of contact quality. Arbitrarily, let's say there are three tiers.
Firsthand empathy or intensely using a product, service or experience yourself
Firsthand, in-context dynamic conversations
Firsthand observation, ethnography and shadowing
Time spent with extreme users
Passive monitoring of online communities
Interpreting data from a survey you didn't design
Focus groups, especially behind glass walls
Cocktail party banter
Interpreting data from a survey you didn't design that everybody else has access to
Listening to someone else's cocktail banter