Grace Performance Chemicals, a division of W.R. Grace Co. that supplies materials and chemicals to the construction and packaging industries, understands that its customers may know better what they need than it does. In June, the company asked sales reps to observe the innovative, often unexpected ways customers used its products. Some, for example, were using Grace waterproofing materials to soundproof cars and patch boots and tents. (Grace anxiously notes that it condones none of those uses.)
The reps collected 134 anecdotes, which Grace organized and analyzed using "idea management" software from Boston-based Imaginatik. The notion, says Imaginatik CEO Mark Turrell: "Companies very often employ bright people but only use them to do the task at hand." Systematic capture, sharing, and exploiting of ideas across an organization, he says, can produce breakthrough innovations.
Grace expected that capturing its customers' unanticipated applications might lead to new ways to market existing products—or tap latent demand for new products. In fact, Grace's campaign, dubbed "Customers Do the Darnedest Things," has generated seven compelling ideas potentially worth millions in sales, says Paul J. Westgate, director of innovation. (He won't say what they are.)
Look to your customers for new ideas, and actually pay attention. That's not a bad idea.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.