Wednesday, February 29, 2012

“Just-In-Time” Innovation

Having a dependable supply of product innovations is a goal of many companies. Millions of dollars earmarked for Research & Development are budgeted each year in company after company for this purpose. Efforts to fill the new product pipeline are initiated every year leaving the corporate “cupboard” brimming with unused and neglected product innovations. Isn’t it odd that the marketplace is riddled with so many failed new products when compared to the abundance of unused product innovations stockpiled on companies’ “shelves”? Do we have an innovation “inventory” problem?

The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos meant the passage of time: time that can be measured by the minute, hour, day, week, etc. In other words, clock time. Kairos, on the other hand, meant a special time: time that is endowed with meaning and purpose, in other words, the right time. The notion of a “window of opportunity” might be a close approximation to the Greek’s notion of kairos.

Might the unused inventories of product innovations in corporate pipelines be related to the high mortality rates of new product introductions? Might both be related to a failure to understand the difference between chronos and kairos?
In the late 1980s, Weight Watchers Frozen Entrees had been regularly introducing a stream of new products. Many of their new products were aimed at the gold standard at that time Lean Cuisine.  Weight Watchers was so successful at this strategy, in fact, that they suddenly found themselves in the lead position. Instead of aiming at the target, they became the target!

Their first reaction to competition assaults was, quite naturally, to do what they had done so well, for so long—introduce another new product. Only this time, it had to come out the innovation inventory faster. Accelerating development time caused considerable havoc to their delicately balanced project portfolio process. In their rush to market, Weight Watchers made assumptions about consumers’ needs, which ultimately proved incorrect. It wasn’t long before they were overtaken by Healthy Choice™ in the frozen food wars.

Weight Watchers had followed a “chronos strategy” of new product innovations. It worked for a while. When their competitive position changed, however, and they became the leader, chronos turned to kairos, leaving them with an inventory of product innovations what was “out of date.”

Constant vigilance to even subtle change in the attitudes and behavior of customers and competitive dynamics may be even more important that a dependable supply of innovations. Chronos can turn to kairos quickly. Resources devoted to keeping the pipeline full may be better spent attending to the quiet shifts in the posture of customers and competitors. Then we may be better able to innovate, just-in-time.


This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in October 1993. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.   

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