Two of the most satisfying feelings in the world are to launch a new product into the market and then, post-launch, to see it succeed. The tricky part is that neither of those things – launching nor succeeding – happen by accident. Successful innovation is a product of good people and good processes at work and, when I see innovation efforts fail to thrive, the failure is usually not because of the people you have in place.
When it comes to getting good, clear results from your innovation efforts, process is key – and Dwellworks has invested the time to create great processes.
Want to know how we do it? Here are the five main process ‘ingredients’ every organization needs to have in in place to ensure good people and good teams won’t founder when developing new products.
One: A process to guide the development of useful ideas
Coming up with new ideas is easy. “Yoga Pants for Cats” – there you go, it’s a new idea. It’s novel, sure, and it’s also completely useless.
Developing a process to help your team create useful ideas requires discipline on the front end of your innovation process, as well as deep participation from leaders and stakeholders throughout the organization. Leaders and business line owners are in the best position to help articulate which specific criteria will be used to define an idea’s usefulness, and then use those criteria to form guided requests.
Having a business leader ask the team to create “bold, new ideas” is easy – as well as a precursor to failure, because the novelty requirement isn’t sufficiently connected to usefulness at the outset.
Imagine that same leader taking a more intentional approach at the outset, and posing the call for ideation this way: “We need bold, new ideas that take our core capabilities and use them in new ways to expand our business into a new vertical within the next 12 months” or “We need bold, new ideas that will reduce effort or costs associated with the repetitive tasks we see during seasonal spikes.”
It’s easy to see that by developing meaningful definitions of usefulness, leaders can ask better questions at the beginning and be much happier with the results at the end.
Two: A sound process for evaluating new ideas
If ideation is the ‘tick’ of the innovation clock, then evaluation is the ‘tock': two separate and distinct activities, both of which are required for your innovation cycles to click. This is another element of innovation where getting the buy-in and participation of leaders up front is critically important – and your evaluation criteria should be communicated to the team, ideally, around the same time as you’re laying out the guidelines that shape your definition of usefulness.
Having a clear sense of evaluation criteria will help your organization identify which ideas are the best fit for the goals you’re aiming to achieve, plus provide you with a consistent lens through which to view the different concepts being presented.
I’ve seen organizations take an evaluation scheme to an unhealthy extreme, and create such a vast array of interdependent elements that the only thing accomplished is to ensure that no idea will make it through the gauntlet and be accepted for development.
To avoid this, it’s important to consider how your evaluation criteria map out against your business priorities, and then develop your evaluation approach in a very a pragmatic sense. Here are a few sample filters to consider.
- If speed-to-market is key, concepts that can be launched more quickly than others come out ahead.
- If cost-control is key, concepts that can be implemented for a lower investment than others come out ahead.
- If risk mitigation is key, concepts that can be piloted in a controlled way prior to broad rollout come out ahead.
- If growth is key, concepts that are aimed at capturing new business (vs improving existing business) come out ahead.
- If customer value is key, concepts that lower price and/or improve user experience come out ahead.
Every business’ priorities are different, so there’s a ton of room for variance in approaches to evaluation. The key takeaway is to make sure you’re evaluating fit-for-purpose based on what’s important to your business.
On the human capital side, a bonus of having clear evaluation criteria is that it helps you communicate why one idea was chosen to move forward vs another. Simply telling an ideation participant, “Hey, sorry Bill… but we liked Mary’s idea more than yours” not only risks making Bill feel demotivated, it also misses out on taking advantage of a valuable teaching opportunity. Having clear and standardized evaluation criteria will let you communicate the ‘why’ behind the choice, as well as set Bill up for success in the future.
For example, imagine if the feedback went this way. “We liked your idea a lot, Bill, but as we said up front, we’re looking for ideas that will let us launch a new product in time for the trade show this Fall. Mary’s idea gave us a cleaner shot at that target, because it doesn’t rely on building out a consumer insight capability like yours did. We do think that consumer research is an interesting concept and, thanks to you, we’ll talk about getting it into the planning cycle for next year.”
Voila – having clearly articulated evaluation criteria allows you to acknowledge the solution-focused contribution of a valuable colleague, while at the same time helping that person become more mindful channeling creativity towards fit-for-purpose innovation in the future. Win-win.
So, now that you’ve generated ideas and bounced them against your evaluation criteria, you’re set to go – right? Well, not so fast. Now you’re going to need…
Three: A testing process that lets you fail small & fail fast
The plain truth of the matter is that not all ideas are created equal. Some ideas that you love will die, while other concepts – even though you may have little confidence in them – will succeed beyond your wildest imagination. And at the beginning, when every idea is nothing but dreams and possibilities, it’s going to be hard to pick the ‘winners’ from the rest.
Think of it this way. Pretend you’ve got a handful of seeds, and you’re trying to guess which one will grow the fastest. Which approach will give you the most information for the least effort?
- A: spending three days having meetings to discuss the seeds, asking BI to weigh in with a potential- growth-vs-fertilizer-investment table for each seed, and then reviewing the data with leadership to determine which seed to plant.
- B: planting the seeds, watering them, and seeing which one grows the fastest.
When it comes to early-stage testing, that’s the mindset you need to bring to the table: how can we learn the most, and learn it in the quickest & cheapest way? Developing this sort of bias for action will help you not only gauge the potential for concepts quickly at the outset of your development cycle, but it will also set the stage and pace for forward momentum as your innovation project progresses.
In order to accelerate your innovation efforts, you’ve got to figure out how to test concepts in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible. And not every test has to be a tech-enabled thing of beauty. My go-to technique for initial testing on web & mobile development is to make butt-ugly drawings of pages & process flows on a white board, and then walk a variety of subject matter experts through my thinking. I can cover a ton of ground very quickly, I can pressure-test and improve concepts on the fly, and the iteration expenses are limited to occasionally buying new markers & erasers.
Four: A process that helps maintain an MVP mindset
The intoxicating, addictive thing about innovation is that it’s so exciting. It’s new, it’s different, it’s more focused on the future than the past, and it transports you out of the business that you’re in and puts you squarely in the business of possibility.
Enthusiasm is a good thing. It drives progress forward, it helps build wide-spread support for initiatives large and small, and your organization’s culture gains strong benefits from creating a climate that encourages and rewards passion & enthusiasm.
The risk lies in leaving all that natural enthusiasm unchecked, exposing your team and your timeline to the danger of a product launch’s mortal enemy: scope creep.
When developing an MVP, it’s critical that you stay within the boundaries of that definition: Minimum Viable Product. A minimally viable product doesn’t mean that you’ll launch with every feature on your wish list, nor that on Day 1 it’ll make every dream come true. It means that your product will launch with a set of features that allows it to deliver value to your customers and provide fact-based learning opportunities for your consumer insight & development teams.
There are two techniques I find helpful when it comes to creating checks on scope creep, and neither one is that complicated. The first is to leverage the expertise of stakeholders to develop tight business requirement documents for each feature at the beginning of development, and to then use those as concrete roadmaps for what’s going to ‘happen’ for MVP. When you invite your colleagues to be co-authors up front, it’s much easier to create and maintain a shared definition of what’s in scope & what’s out.
The other technique? Even simpler: create a holding pen where you can save & catalog every suggestion that comes in along the way. As every new idea is lobbed into the ring, thank people for their contributions and let them know that all of the ideas will be studied, groomed & prioritized for implementation after the MVP launch. Again, it’s important to acknowledge and thank people for contributing ideas, no matter the form – ideas and passion are the lifeblood of any organization, and you need to be mindful of nurturing a climate that supports both.
Five: A strong commercialization process
This is the last ingredient, and it’s a critical one. When we talk about how great it feels to see a product launch and succeed, a process that yields a strong commercialization strategy is the driving force behind the “success” part of that equation.
The time to start developing a good commercialization strategy is not when a product is complete. The best time to develop your strategy is when the product is still under construction… not final, but developed with enough clarity that features, benefits and customer value are becoming apparent.
Who participates in developing this strategy? Everyone. Your business line owners, your marketing team, your account managers, your financial team, even ‘non-experts’ whose fresh eyes can help you spot concepts and benefits and express them in plain language.
A key contributor to developing a strong commercialization strategy is your customer. Like any other stakeholder in a development process, your customer can provide valuable insights. And when you’re communicating with your customers regularly, there’s not a lot of upside to shrouding your innovation efforts in secrecy. It pays to bring strategic partners into the process well before your product is complete, and use the benefit of their insights to help you develop a clear line of sight between what you’re creating and what they value most.
The proof is in the process
Process is one of the easiest things to get wrong, and one of the most difficult things to get right – and innovation processes are amongst the most complex your organization is ever going to encounter. That’s why Dwellworks is proud to use our expertise to collaborate with partners from all over the world and bring a fresh spirit of innovation to the Destination Services industry.
Curious about how we can work together to bring new ideas to life? Reach out – we'd love to have a conversation!
Ken is our Director of Product Design in Cleveland, Ohio. Read more of his insights on innovation, creativity, and more here.
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