Necessity is the mother of invention. And few things are more necessary to the success of an organization than customers. Leave that thought on the page and we will return to it very shortly.

Napoleon knew that a military force was only as successful as the food it was provided. He offered a large prize ($75K in today’s dollars) to any person who could figure out a way to get better, healthier food to his Army. In 1809, a candy maker named Nicholas Appert stepped up to the challenge and discovered a process to heretically seal food in glass jars. Appert’s technique led to an 1810 patent and spread to the U.S. where the first foods sealed and shipped were salmon and lobster! Why not start with the best!

We are in a fast-paced, rapidly changing business world. “As globalization gives everyone the same information, resources, technology, and markets,” wrote bestselling author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, “a society’s particular ability to put those pieces together in the fastest and most innovative manner increasingly separates winners from losers in the global economy.” 

But the demand for innovation is exceeding our capacity. Notice, Napoleon did not go down to the mess hall and summon his Army cooks. There was no, “I need your help!”  (Actually, he would have said, “J’ai besoin de ton aide.”) We need “candy makers” to help solve our “Army on its belly” type challenges. And that brings us to one of an organization’s greatest innovation resources: its customers. Getting customers to provide input is one thing; getting them to provide hands-on help is quite another. 

DHL is the FedEx and UPS of Europe. With over a half-million employees, they are the largest private carrier in the world. Their commitment to co-creation partnerships takes many forms including their annual DHL Innovation Days. Customers and business partners connect in an inspirational atmosphere to think outside the box and honor creative minds with the DHL Innovation Awards. 

When customers wanted help rethink supply chains and logistics to improve future business performance, DHL created a series of intensive hands-on workshops that brought together DHL experts with customers to do scenario planning for future applications. It yielded breakthroughs like Parcelcopter, a drone delivery project; smart glasses, an augmented reality that improved warehouse picking efficiency by 25%; and “Maintenance on Demand,” co-created with DHL customer Volvo Trucks that uses sensors to automatically send back vehicle performance data to identify when and where truck maintenance will be needed.

What can you do to find and involve customers who can be the “candy makers” to help solve your product and service creation challenges? What would your co-creation partnerships look like? The road ahead is going to be increasingly complex. You will need all the half-baked, slightly wild ideas you can get. Just like Napoleon who casts an idea net beyond the ranks of his Army, employees can be too close to the issue to see what a customer might see. Next time you need some R&D help, invite your customers to come help sweeten the solutions.