I recently facilitated an innovation workshop at a client and things got tense… really tense.  And I couldn’t have been happier.

Normally, tension in any meeting is a bad thing, but in this case, we purposely got comfortable with tension because we used it to inspire innovation.  As marketers, we know the most successful innovations address unmet consumer needs so our workshop focused on uncovering marketplace tensions as an avenue for new product discovery.

We’ll get back to how that’s done in a moment, but let’s start by defining what a tension is.

A marketplace tension is simply the gap between what a consumer needs (or wants) and what (s)he perceives as solutions available meet that need (or want).  The bigger the gap, the more tension there is.  And when there’s more tension, there’s usually a more significant opportunity to innovate:

marketplace tension

Steve Jobs infamously said people don’t know what they want until it’s been shown it to them, which makes the above approach seem impossible.  While it’s hard to dispute Apple’s innovation track record under Jobs, even in a pre-smartphone world there were telltale signs of marketplace tensions that pointed to the opportunity to create the iPhone:

  • There was strong demand for mobile phones.
  • There was strong demand for portable digital music devices (like iPods and MP3 players).
  • Personal Digital Assistants (like Palm Pilot) were gaining popularity, especially those that could be wirelessly synchronized with a computer (via infrared technology, the precursor to Bluetooth).

Jobs identified a marketplace tension that few others saw early on: consumers would want all the above (and much more) in a single pocket-sized device.  In hindsight, it’s easy to see that tension; but even as iPhone was launched 10 years ago, some people questioned its viability.

We all know that innovation success on the scale of iPhone is incredibly rare (particularly in the consumer products industry), but the premise of finding and exploiting marketplace tension can lead to breakthrough results.  To do this, in our workshop I led my client through a three-step approach:

STEP ONE:  Identify Consumer Needs/Wants

Taking a lesson from Jobs, the most important thing when identifying consumer needs and wants is to go deeper than just what people say.  Certainly, we should tap into the many sources of consumer insights: Primary and secondary consumer research, social intelligence, ethnographic analysis, etc..  However, as marketers we must push to go deeper, particularly when we hear consumers say, “I want a better version of what exists today.”  Ask consumers to identify barriers that block the path to something better (functional and emotional barriers are a great source of innovation inspiration).

STEP TWO: Identify Perceived Available Solutions

Find the solutions consumers are currently using to meet their needs/wants and validate learnings via real world observation.  When we see people creating their own solutions (e.g., pulling ingredients together to build something that addresses their needs/wants), we’ve likely uncovered a significant tension.

For example, carrying a flip phone, an iPod, and a Palm Pilot is actually a patchwork ‘home remedy’ for the convenience that the smartphone addresses.  A current world example of this same dynamic is the proliferation of meal kits (i.e., consumers see value in home cooking, but want the convenience of having all ingredients in one package).

Bringing in an unbiased third party is particularly helpful at this stage as marketers, particularly those who have worked on a category/product for a long time, may not see the obvious.  Steve Jobs had the ability to think this way, but it is a very unique skill.

STEP THREE: Identify the Gap/Tension

The gap between consumer needs/wants and available solutions represents the tension that exists in the marketplace.  Assess the gap and fill it with a “wish list” of solutions.  An easy way to do this is to complete the sentence: “Consumers would love it if they could find…”

Be sure to take Steve Jobs’ advice and do not directly ask consumers to complete that sentence.  Rather, show consumers the solution so they understand the true value it unlocks for them.  This dynamic is especially true when the ‘gap’ is large, so proceed with caution.


Using marketplace tensions to inspire innovation is a powerful way to unlock consumer value.  Better yet, it’s a simple, intuitive approach that lends itself to workshopping/brainstorming sessions using the three-step approach above.

So, go ahead and get tense… you never know what kind of innovation it will inspire!