The surprising truth about succeeding with innovation

  • Posted on 01.04.2015

The surprising truth about succeeding with innovation


What you can learn from Coloplast’s perspective-driven approach to innovation. 

In the late aughts, Coloplast, a long established leader in ostomy and continence care, was losing its competitive edge. Despite an endless stream of new products with ever more new features in the pipeline, they kept missing their sales targets. Coloplast found that its traditional market research was only leading them further astray: the research reported that there were thousands of possible problems to solve in ostomy care—some related to the issue of leakage—but it couldn’t offer any insight into which ones mattered the most to users and why. Management knew that they needed to have a clear answer to the company’s most fundamental question: what problems are we trying to solve?

In an effort to answer that question, Coloplast decided to reframe their approach: instead of asking, “How do we sell more products?”, they broadened their inquiry by asking, “What is our users’ experience with ostomy care?” To answer that question, they engaged in an ethnographic research project, dispatching social scientists to live with patients and stakeholders around the world. When they collected the data—in the form of ethnographic notes, interviews, journal entries, videos and photographs—they had to let go of their linear, hypothesis-driven problem solving and open themselves up to a more nonlinear process. Eventually, over weeks and weeks of steeping themselves in this raw and more tactile data, they arrived at an insight with explanatory power: the users kept having problems with leakage because every single one of their bodies was different. It seemed obvious once they landed on it but it was also revelatory: none of the technically advanced polymers or adhesives addressed the fact that each one of the users had a different body shape. People with stomas have surgery scars, bumps, hernias, and some have just lost or gained weight. The ostomy care products were leaking because no one was acknowledging this one simple need: different shaped bodies require different types of fit. Ironically, traditional market research had consistently obscured the magnitude of this need because ostomy care patients had become so accustomed to avoiding embarrassing social situations where leakages might occur.

Once the need became clear to the Coloplast team, they were able to move immediately into building the business impact. Using photographs of hundreds of different users, the company started putting bodies into a few select categories, creating a system they called BodyFit. This BodyFit concept gave immediate direction to research and development and put an end to ostomy care’s pipeline filled with marginally beneficial new features.[i]

As a result of these—and other—types of perspective-driven innovations, Coloplast was nominated the best medical company in the world by patients in a 2014 global study, and has consistently been outpacing competitors in recent years.[ii, iii]

The story of Coloplast shows the power of having a genuine perspective on the market. Their alternative approach allowed them to break away a common innovation pitfall of the MedTech industry: whole groups of companies in a particular category delivering endless new features with only marginal benefits based on an outdated understanding of user needs.

Coloplast is not alone in this alternative approach. Having worked with different Medtech companies for more than ten years, I have seen very different companies make sense of their unique customer ecology and identify a new direction. Whether they focus on acute and chronic conditions, on hospital and community markets or on a market with a very different geographical footprint, the most innovative MedTech companies have a process that includes some version of the following five elements:

1. They dare to re-frame the question

Re-frame the business challenge and corresponding questions into a social (and often broader) question

2. They look at the full ecology

Seek an understanding that goes beyond the patient and the key health care professionals. A broader perspective might include the role of the patient’s family or the office clerks in the hospital or insurance agency, for example.

3. They listen and observe a whole lot

Focus on immersing themselves in the rich and contextual world of the users through participation and observation combined with interviews

4. They build a ‘room’ free of hypothesizes

Break free of existing hypotheses and allow for a fresh start, going through an interpretive process that is both analytical and creative.

5. They develop a clear perspective to drive innovation

Build a perspective on an area based on customer insight and use it to set direction for both an innovation intent and innovation projects. Only at this point do they turn to technology to solve problems.



[i] You can read more about Coloplast’s story and others in the book: The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Problems:




Feature image credit: Flickr/Dick Vos 

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