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Product Marketers: Five Ways to Speed Up Your Innovation Process

by Mike C. Johnson, Consultant

Speeding Up Innovation

The tech community (especially start-ups) have done a great job dominating the narrative around innovation. With their product groups’ frequent use of agile methodologies, they’ve also long been seen as the flagship segment when it comes to innovating quickly. For marketers of products that are built with actual raw materials rather than lines of code, it’s easy to feel left out of the innovation conversation. Obviously, the tech world has a speed advantage relative to traditional product-based marketers. For example, a product team for a programming-based concept can receive feedback about a user interface from an online community group on Tuesday, tweak the interface coding on Wednesday, and have a modified version launched before Friday at lunch. A product team developing, say, a new tire or tractor trailer doesn’t have that same freedom. However, marketers of manufactured products shouldn’t feel helpless when it comes to speeding up their innovation process.

Here are five ways to ensure you’re launching products as fast as your product category can reasonably expect.

1. Anticipate Future Pivot Points

Future pivot points are aspects of a concept that may require a change in direction or strategy as new learning occur. They tend to occur in relation to technological, selling-model, or cost aspects of the concept. For example, imagine that a product-based innovation team for an equipment manufacturer has gone through the concept evaluation and business case development stages of their innovation process. During these stages, they’ve assumed a new technology concept would be sold as a concept integrated into existing units vs. as a stand-alone selling model. The innovation team gets to the concept development stage and uncovers all types of integration challenges and realizes the concept is more viable as a stand-alone selling offering. The problem is, they based the viability of the concept and business case from the previous stages on only one model with no consideration of alternative selling models. At this point, this innovation team will either abandon a potentially viable concept because it was evaluated based on a too-narrow selling model or be forced to go back and validate the concept as a stand-alone solution (losing time and money).

I have worked on well over a dozen new product development projects both as an internal team member and consultant. These experiences have taught me to always encourage clients to anticipate potential pivot points and incorporate ways to develop a point of view at stages 0 – 2 of the innovation process. Doing so enables the team to quickly pivot instead of being caught flat-footed in the likely chance that a shift is necessary as the project progresses.

2. Apply an Agile Mindset and Methodology

Software developers championed the Agile approach to software development some 15 years ago. While all aspects may not be applicable in a manufactured product development environment, some certainly are. Below are several agile elements to consider:

Agile Mindset: Behaving in an agile fashion starts with thinking in an agile fashion. This means being comfortable with continuous iteration as new customer insights are learned. View the innovation process as a collection of multiple deliverables and associated activities. Each serves as an opportunity to learn and adjust along the way with the voice of the customer at the center of it all. This is a mindset shift from the traditional waterfall approach of sticking with a more rigid plan of action established up front. The agile approach enables more comfort with iteration based on the voice of the customer to ensure a more customer relevant concept is delivered.

Sprints: Incorporate a sprint approach to the innovation process by breaking down stage work into smaller, two week increments. This simple, yet effective shift in how you approach work drives focus and quicker decision-making. We refer to these sprints as “rapid learning cycles” where we continually adjust and apply our learnings throughout the process.

Personas and User Stories: Go beyond demographics or behavioral segmentation attributes. Personas and User Stories are designed to provide an empathetic view of the customer and to more deeply understand what motivates and drives them. Utilizing both tools establishes a more customer-centric approach to development. This will help hit the mark and ensure prioritizing concept features that matter most to the customer.

Customer Panels: Tech and software-based innovation teams are well versed in using online communities to provide feedback on concepts throughout the innovation process. It’s not enough to conduct an up-front survey and then assume views won’t change. There is no reason why manufactured product innovators can’t check in with customers more frequently to gauge feature and benefit interest or to assess changes in preferences and behaviors.

3. Apply the 80/20 Rule Ruthlessly to Focus on Delivery

Manufactured product innovation teams often inherit a bias towards process, efficiency and optimization because that’s the focus of their company as a whole. A typical large, product-based company in mature markets often rely upon process, optimization and efficiency as a source of growth. In a start-up environment, this bias can quickly become dead weight. In a start-up environment, you’re learning and iterating weekly – if not daily – which usually makes efforts to establish processes, optimize them, and drive efficiency an exercise in futility. Forget about process, optimization and efficiency and focus on the customer, learning, and delivering. This shift in focus will get you through development and to market faster.

4. Enable Budget and Decision-Making Autonomy.

Many companies from Walt Disney to US Cellular are creating autonomous innovation divisions or incubators within their respective organizations. They’re doing this with the hopes of creating the autonomy and agility that comes with being small and focused. However, simply forming these internal teams is not enough. They must truly be structured to operate independently and autonomously from the parent organization, especially as it pertains to budget and decision-making. Think of it this way… every dotted line back to the parent company is lost time. This includes reporting structures, budget allocations, decision-making and even return on investment expectations. When any of these items connect back to the parent company, time in the innovation process will be extended.

5. Establish Innovation Boundaries to Balance Creative Freedom and Strategic Focus.

Anything close to establishing a box or boundaries to operate within can be perceived negatively within some innovation circles. However, a good innovation machine has multiple channels for input and ideas. These ideas must be filtered and prioritized quickly so resources are focused on the most promising opportunities. What’s required is a clear definition around what’s inside the innovation sandbox and what is not. The trick is to create boundaries without creating blinders. A couple tips to do so:

Focus on the company’s mission and ultimate value it aims to deliver vs. the product itself.

This enables innovation teams to be awake of innovations disruptive to current products (Ford making the Model T vs. simply making faster horses) without wasting time on concepts that don’t align to the company’s mission/strategy (Harley Davidson Aftershave and Perfume. Yes, this was real).

Define innovation areas and platforms to both lead and fast-follow in.

To enhance prioritization, select areas of innovation where you want to lead the category. For example, when Ford launched their Sync system in partnership with Microsoft in 2007, they were committed to leading the automobile category within the in-car entertainment and communications space after years of lagging. This served as a differentiator for the Ford brand which helped boost the company’s performance between 2007 and 2011. It also served as an innovation platform that enabled Ford to accelerate learning and focus innovations around in-car and on-board electronics technology with each new product and evolution of Sync.

Product marketers who are a part of larger companies need not feel left out of the excellence and speed that start-ups get to brag about. By honing their ability to anticipate pivot points, drive focus, and think more like David vs. Goliath, manufactured product innovation and marketing teams can be quicker to market with new innovations despite their unique challenges.

To learn more about how marketers are improving their innovation efforts, review our Forbes Online Magazine Feature based on CMG’s Seventh Annual CMO’s Agenda, “The Customer:  Your #1 Resource for Innovation”

To learn more about developing Personas, User Stories, Sprints and other Agile components, visit our resource page on Agile for Marketing.