Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Strategies for Discovering Innovation Opportunities

One of the most difficult challenges for the R&D professional is to identify and uncover a new or emerging need.  A veteran product developer often reminded me that “we humans are coping animals.”  We put up with the way things are until we believe there is an alternative.  Without the belief that there is a better way, we simply cope.  This coping tendency makes it hard to discover new or emerging needs in the market.

How then can the R&D professional listen to customers or end-users who are not able to articulate their needs very well, if at all?  How can we listen for new and emerging needs when we are not certain that the end-user for tomorrow’s new product will be the same one as today's?

We have observed three strategies for listening to end-users who are not as “articulate” as we wish they would be.  The strategies are called ideation, foresight and insight.  All three strategies require R&D to invest time and effort up-front in the identification and understanding of opportunities before rushing to invent and develop solutions.  However, each strategy takes the R&D professional into a different set of activities and methods, each with its own inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Ideation Strategy

The ideation strategy relies heavily upon the generation of ideas.  Here product developers generate and develop new product concepts and use them as “hidden microphones” to listen for the symptoms of new and emerging needs of end-users.  These concepts are used to stimulate reactions from end-users or customers with the hope that new and emerging needs will be expressed.

One advantage of this strategy is that it uses common and accessible tools and techniques of market research (e.g., focus groups).  Having new concepts to test gives you more of a reason to talk to customers, and conversing with end-users within this context is familiar and safe.

One disadvantage of this strategy is that the generators of the concepts often become wed to their ideas, and so the concepts become the ends rather than the means of discovery.  Even when concepts are regarded as “listening probes,” R&D professionals often wonder whether potential areas of opportunity were missed because the concepts were so limited in scope.

Foresight Strategy

The foresight strategy uses trends to uncover new and emerging needs.  The rationale is that new and emerging needs come from new attitudes and behavior, which are derived from trends.  If you identify and understand a trend, you are in a better position to identify a new need.

Given the lead time it takes from concept to commercialization to develop a breakthrough new product or innovation, many try to uncover and anticipate new needs for enough in advance to have time to prepare.  The foresight strategy is attractive to many because even with mediocre marketing, you should be able to succeed if your new offerings are aligned with the momentum inherent in the path of development.

In practice though, we have seen a lot of R&D efforts become distracted with the identification and analysis of trends.  People often place too little emphasis on making creative and solid associations between the trends, their company’s core competencies and the new and emerging needs.  They often over-indulge (in time and dollars) on trend identification, while underestimating the importance of doing trend analysis from the perspective of their company’s unique technical and market strengths.  Therefore follow-through and internal integration efforts tend to fall short.

Insight Strategy

The insight strategy, the least understood but perhaps the most potent of the three strategies, uses in-depth interview and ethnographic methods of observation to discover new and emerging needs.  Carefully selected subjects – both existing customers as well as “leading edge” users and even non-users – are interviewed and observed in their “native” environments.  They are even invited into the interpretation of their own behavior and attitudes.  This is a good method for originating proprietary end-user insights – perspectives on the end-user that your competitor is not likely to see.

The insight strategy is not for the faint of heart.  It requires organizational patience, a long leash extended to those involved in the research, and a special tolerance for ambiguity, characteristics which are not often found inside our organizations.  While it takes patience and discipline, the payoffs can be quite large – total new “competitive spaces,” as 3M calls them, have been discovered with this strategy that have led to new categories of products.  The elusive “big idea” may result from this strategy more than any of the others.

Ultimately, each team will want to consider its own combination and variation of these three strategies.  Whichever strategy is taken, the identification of new and emerging needs is best done by R&D professionals intimately familiar with the technical capabilities of their company and with what is technically possible.  Surround technically-savvy R&D professionals with ideas, foresight and insight regarding existing and potential end-users, and watch them help the market find the words for needs that had previously remained silent or hidden.

Listening requires ears.  Hearing requires empathy, understanding and imagination.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in April 1997. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Opportunity’s “Eye of the Needle”

Discovering an emerging need and filling it is a bit like threading a needle. If we assume we will get it on the first try we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

The persistence of this “first try” expectation is as striking as it is common and chronic, particularly among companies with established revenue streams. Perhaps it is because some of our companies have become so successful for so long that we have lost our institutional memory of those earlier entrepreneurial times. Perhaps our very focus on competitively differentiating our product offerings blinds us, at least in part, to subtle shifts in the needs, values and behavior of our end-users.  Many have succumbed to the seduction of the competition, beating a rival, but have lost touch with the very needs of the people we seek to serve.

Some principles for addressing this “first try” expectation can be found in Stefan H. Thomke’s book, Experimentation Matters (HBS Press, 2003).  Thomke suggests both how important and how difficult it has become for companies to get out from under the tyranny of their own success.  “True experimentation is all too rare in successful companies.” So-called “productive failures” – those that produce significant technical and end-user insights – become increasingly rare in organizational cultures of success. The central message from Experimentation Matters – a manifesto for learning from early experimentation (and exploration) efforts – is simply “fail,” first, fast, frequently and in the field (our paraphrase).

Beyond Thomke’s principles for experimentation and exploration, however, are at least two other principles for threading the needle of discovering emerging needs upon which to base future growth.  Both of these principles, and their associated practices, aim to discover needs that are robust and resilient enough in the first place to sufficiently motivate further experimentation and the patience to withstand the inevitable resistance.

One is to actually slow time down.  What may be right under our noses can be more easily revealed when we watch the routines of people in which we have an interest, in slow motion.  Several years ago in an engagement with a client in the facial tissue business, we experimented with consumers, one-on-one, asking them to describe in slow motion what they were doing and experiencing when they reached for a facial tissue.  Though it was awkward for people to do so – asking them to slow something down that is so routine, unconscious and automatic – the results were profound.  It actually led to the discovery of proprietary (at the time) insights that, in turn, lead to a whole new and more dynamic test and measurement framework from which several new successful products emerged.  Ezra Pound put it succinctly years ago, “Glance is the enemy of vision.”

Another principle is to change your point of view.  Landscape painters and photographers practice this principle when they try out different angles from which to view, capture or render the “truth” of what they are seeing.  Several years ago Eli Callaway had already committed to a state-of-the-art golf ball production facility, but needed a fresh reason for golfers to be interested in golf balls.  We knew that conducting traditional qualitative market research (e.g., focus groups) was unlikely to turn up anything new and different.  In our search for the right point of view, we went to a handful of non-celebrity (to avoid the “pose” factor) experts – a golf course architect, a veteran equipment salesman-turned-teaching professional, and a few others – and asked what we thought was a fairly innocent question – why do people keep playing the game?  Their reaction to our question – “All these years in the business and no one has ever asked me that question before” – suggested that we were on an interesting track.  We had simply changed our point of view from the conventional.

We were speaking with Dick Sperry of The Sperry Group, Inc., recently about how he “gets a vision.”  Unlike the typical image many of us have that the visions come up front and instantly, Dick described a much longer, more iterative process of observing end-users, trying something out with them, watching what happens, and trying again.  What struck me about what Dick said was that vision isn’t finished until well into the development process, even to the point where a customer nicknames the new tool.

Many of us – particularly those of us who are process-oriented – believe that first comes a discovery of a need and then comes the invention of a solution to that need.  However, actual experience suggests that the discovery of a need is more closely coupled with the invention of a solution.  We seldom, if ever, get it on the “first try.”  It requires empathy, imagination, patience and understanding.  Ironically, we can actually accelerate our time-to-market, if we just slow down early in the front-end exploration and change our point of view.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in September 2004. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.