Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs are two of the most legendary technology leaders in history. And both subscribed to the same principle about innovation — one that's the opposite of conventional business wisdom.
An often repeated piece of business advice is to listen to your customer. Asking for feedback from consumers can help ensure you make and sell a product people want.
But there's an important exception, according to both Bezos and Jobs: when you're building something truly revolutionary that people have never seen before. To do the extraordinary, a company and its leaders need to think further ahead than its customers are even able to.
Take smart speaker Amazon Echo with voice assistant Alexa, for example. "No customer was asking for Echo," Bezos wrote in his annual letter to shareholders, published Thursday.
"Market research doesn't help. If you had gone to a customer in 2013 and said, 'Would you like a black, always-on cylinder in your kitchen about the size of a Pringles can that you can talk to and ask questions, that also turns on your lights and plays music?' I guarantee you they'd have looked at you strangely and said, 'No, thank you.'"
Meanwhile, the Echo ended up being wildly successful. According to Bezos, Amazon has sold more than 100 million of the devices.
Jobs held a similar belief.
Former Apple marketing executive Guy Kawasaki, who worked there from 1983 to 1987 and again from 1995 to 1997, told CNBC Make It that his greatest takeaway from working alongside Jobs was to figure out what the customer wants before they even know.
"The most important lesson that I learned from Steve Jobs — and I learned many lessons from Steve Jobs — is that you cannot ask your current customer how to create innovation, revolution to get to the next curve," Kawasaki says. "Because your current customer can only express what he or she wants in terms of what he or she is already getting from you."
Kawasaki says customers only desire a more efficient and less expensive version of what they already have.
"If you are an Apple 2 owner and Apple asked you, 'What do you want in the next computer?' You would say, 'Better, faster, cheaper, Apple 2.' You would not say a Macintosh, because you can't frame that in your mind: 'What is a Macintosh?'" Kawasaki explains. "You can't describe what you've never seen."
"And similarly, I would suspect that if Apple had asked Macintosh owners, 'What do you want in a phone or a pad or a pod?' — it would be difficult for a Macintosh owner to have described that.
"And so that's the challenge, that you could ask your customers to tell you how to revise what they're already getting from you, but you can't ask them how to get to the next curve."
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook