Perry L. Parke
Let me tell you an innovation story. It’s a story of both success and failure, and it’s full of lessons for dental innovators.
Several years ago, when I worked for Microcopy, a dentist approached us with his idea for a new product. He sent drawings, prototypes, and even his calculations of possible sales revenue. What he didn’t provide was a compelling explanation of why the product was needed.
Clayton Christensen calls this the job theory, or the job to be done.1 It’s not that we didn’t ask, and it’s not that the dentist didn’t try to explain it. But there was a huge gap. Unfortunately, it was a gap we couldn’t overcome. We didn’t understand key pieces of the story, and we didn’t know enough to even ask, and the dentist didn’t know that we didn’t know. In his mind, we just didn’t appreciate his great idea. In our minds, the idea just wasn’t that good.
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There are so many lessons here. What we lacked was true empathy. In his newest book, The Origins of Creativity, Edward O. Wilson describes how empathy is fundamental to our creativity.2 We didn’t do enough to walk in the dentist’s shoes and understand his struggle. Lesson: When a dentist is motivated enough to put that much work into a new invention, it has to be because he has struggled with some “job.” We didn’t ask enough questions to find out why the dentist was struggling or what job was causing his struggle.
It is reasonable to ask why he didn’t explain his idea better. What I suspect is that he didn’t have the training he needed to accurately describe the idea. Dental school is very technical, and marketing new ideas is not typically covered. It is also my suspicion that almost all dental practitioners have this in common. This is why I thought there needed to be a place where dental innovators, or “dentalvators,” could find help for their questions—a place where they could find help in polishing a pitch, improve their techniques for moving an idea forward, and reach out to one another. We wanted to help these professionals move their ideas along.
The good news is that the story about the dentist’s product pitch has a happy ending, but it’s kind of strange: A few years after the dentist sent us his idea and we rejected it, a second dentist read my July 2017 article in Dental Economics, titled “The dentist as inventor: Getting dental innovations out of the dentist’s head and into the marketplace.” He decided to contact us directly about his original idea. This second dentist did not provide excellent prototypes or financial calculations like the first dentist did, but his description of why the product was needed made us rise out of our chairs. To say we “got it” is an understatement—it “got” us!
His description of why the device was needed fit the Jobs Theory framework exactly. It was a very empathetic description of how and why dentists and patients struggled with a problem every day and how much suffering had been caused by this issue. Our innovation team was not only roused into action but genuinely moved by the account.
Additionally, the second dentist also had some improvements to the original idea. To make a long story short (and sweet), we found that both dentists were willing to combine their efforts and be jointly named in the effort to secure intellectual property rights for a new patented invention.
As I wrote in my previous DE article, I suspected quite a few dental practitioners out there had a lot of ideas about how to improve dentistry through product innovation. That article spurred a large number of dentists to contact us with their ideas. We were thoroughly unprepared for this volume of ideas. (We are working on it.) Some of the ideas are so good that we are moving ahead with them, some we are passing over to others, and some we have had to pass on.
Here is my advice to all of you would-be dentalvators: If you’re going to pitch your ideas, make sure you can describe the job to be done. And, just as importantly, target the empathy of the person who listens to your pitch. Don’t hesitate to explain in detail the blood, sweat, and tears that go into getting the job done without your idea being available. Let us feel your anxiety and passion. How does it feel to be you when you are struggling to do the job, and you don’t have the new product at your disposal? That’s how we’ll get it!
Editor’s note:This article is a follow-up to one we published in July 2017. To read the first article, visit dentaleconomics.com and search “dentist inventor.”
1. Christensen CM, Hall T, Dillon K, Duncan DS. Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. New York: HarperBusiness; 2016:xii.
2. Wilson EO. The Origins of Creativity. New York: Liveright; 2017.
Perry L. Parke is a product innovation consultant and the former president of Microcopy.