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14.11.2013A Radical Innovation Technique From Snowboarding

When organizations innovate new products and services, the process can get very complex: Competitive analyses.

David Sturt, Forbes.com

When organizations innovate new products and services, the process can get very complex: Competitive analyses. Voice of the customer sessions. Minimum viable product feature sets. Strategies. In many cases, these are all appropriate. But it’s also important to remember that many great products and services started by making a difference people love–one person at a time.

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In 1999, famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut told NPR that he created everything he ever wrote with one specific reader in mind: his sister Allie. “It’s just trusting the taste of someone else,” he said.

Thinking of a single recipient to please may be a rather extreme response to the old axiom “you can’t please all the people all the time.” But it can also be a really good exercise in simplifying the process of innovation. The person we’re designing for may be a customer, a manager, or a peer. At home, it may be a family member, a neighbor, or a friend. But having someone to make a difference for is important, because if even just one or two people are delighted by a new idea, the ripple effects may be greater than you ever imagined.

On Christmas Day 1965, Sherman Poppen’s ten- and five-year-old daughters, Wendy and Laurie, were bouncing off the walls with Christmas joy and driving his 9-month pregnant wife Nancy crazy. A compassionate Sherm had to get his energetic girls out of the house.

It had snowed 10 to 12 inches on Christmas Eve, so Sherm and the girls tried sledding on the dunes behind the family home in Muskegon, Michigan. But sledding was no fun because the sled’s rails were cutting through the snow and getting stuck in the sand. Sherm needed to come up with something his girls would love. And quickly. They tried standing up on one of Wendy’s wooden Kmart skis to ride it down the hill like a skateboard. It was surprisingly fun, but the single ski was too thin. So Sherm went to the garage, found a few scraps of floor molding, and screwed them onto the tops of Wendy’s skis, holding them together.

At first Wendy was horrified (her skis were her pride and joy). But as soon as she began to ride the new contraption standing up, she was delighted. While looking for a simple way to entertain his daughters (and give Nancy some peace and quiet), Sherm had discovered a way to mix snow and surfing that made a difference his girls loved.

Sherm told us about that day. “Those kids were having an absolute ball,” he said. “They were fighting over who would get to ride it next. Neighbors came over and played on it all day long. That afternoon, my wife yelled out the door that we should call our new stand-up sled the ‘Snurfer,’ for ‘snow’ and ‘surfer.’”

At the insistence of daughter Wendy, who felt that the toy was too much fun not to share, Sherm connected with the Brunswick Company (which had a bowling and billiard factory nearby) and found a buyer for his new toy. Brunswick’s attempt to enter the toy market with the Snurfer became a Harvard case study in how not to market a product. But in spite of those blunders, over the next several years close to 800,000 Snurfers were sold.

From 1965 to 1979, Sherm and the local community college sponsored Snurfing contests on the dunes in Muskegon. “College kids picked it up just like the hula hoop,” Sherm said. The competitions got bigger and bigger. Those contests formed the early beginnings of a snow-surfing culture.

In garages from coast to coast, fanatics began to tinker and modify their Snurfers, working to add bindings and other improvements. At the 1979 Snurfing championship in Grand Rapids, a young Snurfer from Vermont showed up with a board of his own making. His modifications disqualified him from the regular Snurfing competition, but rather than sending him packing back to Vermont, the judges created a new division just for him. As the only racer in his division, he won. His name was Jake Burton Carpenter. And the rest is snowboarding history.

While Burton and a handful of innovators from coast to coast were all busy pioneering snowboards throughout the 1970s, adding metal edges, bindings, boots, and other changes to the mix, the snowboard industry widely regards Sherm Poppen as the grandfather of the sport, and the Snurfer as the board that started it all.

Wendy’s skis held together by pieces of floor molding now reside in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But forget for a second the half-billion-dollar industry that the Snurfer inspired. Forget Gold Medalist Shaun White. Forget how, by some reports, the popularity of snowboarding since 2000 may have saved the ski resort industry. Instead, remember where it all began: with Sherm Poppen, a wife who needed rest, and two energetic daughters to delight.

There’s an innovation lesson for all of us: Once in a while it makes sense to “design for the one,” to begin with a specific person in mind and work to create something they love. Because chances are good when one person loves your innovation, a whole lot of others might too.

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