They also have the ability to address their need. Many lead users have, on their own, developed solutions or prototypes. At GE, for instance, many of the institutions with which it has inked research agreements employ scientists that lead the world in the study of different diseases.

Having identified its lead users, a company needs some way of tapping into their expertise and insight. Office supplies retailer­ Staples, of Framingham, Massachusetts, does this by issuing an open invitation to its Invention Quest contest. Just about any U.S. resident over age 18 can submit ideas for innovative, useful office products.

A panel of inventors and product designers, along with members of the Staples management team, review the submissions, looking at their market potential and the originality of the concept, among other qualities. Winners can earn royalties (as well as prize money for those in the top 10) if Staples brings their idea to market. More than 13,000 potential Thomas Edisons, with backgrounds ranging from singers to homemakers to flight attendants, submitted ideas for the most recent contest, which ended in May 2005.

Staples' management believes ideas for cool products can be found anywhere, says Jevin Eagle, senior vice president of Staples Brand Products. "The ideas are there, and we have to find them."

TINKERERS' CONCEPTS have definitely resonated with consumers. For example, Staples sold 280,000 WordLock padlocks inthe first three months after the product's introduction. TheWordLock, winner of the 2004 Invention Quest, uses easy-to-remember letters, rather than numbers, to form combinations.

At St. Paul, Minnesota-based 3M, the process has worked a bit differently. In 2004, the aerospace division introduced a testing device that mechanics can use to check for shorts in aircraft wiring or other faults.

To come up with the new tester, employees from 3M's aerospace division looked to their colleagues in the telecommunications division. They already had developed a tester to locate faults invoice, video, and data circuitry, says Paul Neary, market segment manager for 3M's aerospace MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul) business.

Neary and his colleagues brought the telecommunications tester to maintenance workers, mechanics, and engineers at their aerospace customers, looking for their insight into the functions that would be most useful in that industry. They discovered that the concept of existing telecommunications tester would work, with modifications. "The baseline product had existed in the telecom division but just hadn't made it to aerospace," Neary says.

The result was 3M Advanced Systems Tester 900AST. Workers can check for faults from wherever they can access the wire; previous testers required workers to visually inspect the wires, which often meant taking down wall panels. What's more, the new tool is about the size of a loaf of bread; previous testers were closer in size to ovens.

Electronic Arts, the Redwood Shores, ­California-based developer of computer games, reaches its lead users via the Internet. Once they've purchased the original game, users can download portions of the code used to develop it.

They then can create "mods," or modifications, to the game. In 2005, a "modder" tweaked the company's Battlefield 1942 game. While the original game takes place on the battlefields of World War II, the modified version occurs in the desert. Other Battlefield players also can download and play the modified version.

Although the mods don't generate revenue, they still contribute to EA's bottom line, says spokesperson Steve Groll. Most significantly, mods keep users engaged in the product. "They keep playing the mods until the next official title in the franchise ships," he says.