Product innovation is the lifeblood of many businesses. The proportion of sales due to new products from businesses competing in fast moving markets can often be over 50%. Higher still in technology companies. Yet why is it that so many products fail, and what can you do to ensure success? So here are seven enemies of product innovation. Spot them and slay them whenever you can!
1. Failure to find or better meet a consumer need
Seventy five percent of products or services fail for this reason (1). This is particularly the case in technology markets where new innovations are often just new features trying to find a consumer need.
Even the famous Sony Walkman originally failed for this reason. The initial consumer response to the ‘Walkman’ was ‘why do I need a portable tape player when I have one at home?’ Only when Sony identified its ability to change consumers’ mood and invested in making the product ‘cool’ did sales start to take-off.
In markets where there are many competitors, new products or services must also better meet consumers’ needs, find and create new consumer needs and turn needs into wants.
2. Cultural myopia
The more successful the business the louder is the mantra ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Thus the more entrenched mindsets and processes become, and the greater the risk of quenching the creative flame. So remember the low-cost airlines effect on national airlines such as British Airways, Amazon’s effect on retail book-stores and Apple itunes’ effect on the music producers. This is where driven people, independent innovation teams and external agents can help cut through the malaise.
3. Lack of creativity
For new products to stand-out requires creativity. While great ideas or discoveries can occur in a Eureka moment (think Newton and apple trees) it is a myth that creativity is the preserve of the few. Everyone can be creative. It just helps to understand what it is and how to do it. Creativity is an ability to make new connections and generate ideas. It is a thinking skill – an ability to think laterally ie from side to side, in a divergent fashion – not just in a linear, logical, convergent fashion.
There are many techniques to generate ideas and solve problems. These including reframing or looking at a problem from a different view-point, understanding and changing the rules in a market, through sensory stimulation and visioning or dreaming. For example, if Ernest Hemingway the writer ever felt bereft of ideas for his stories, he was known to sit in his rocking chair, relax and drift off to sleep. You can try this too. In the absence of a colleague, do as Hemingway did – hold marbles in your hand and work in a room with a wooden floor!
4. Lack of time, determination, or due process
Creativity also requires thinking time – time to create more, and iterate and build ideas.
As well as time, hard work and due process is important. Creative sessions are useful to kick-start an innovation process, though it is easy to kill ideas and hard to develop them in a few short hours. Like plants, ideas need to be nourished and given time to thrive otherwise they will die. While 3M discovered their ‘weak’ glue by accident the successful commercialisation of their famous post-it notes took twelve years. This was in part due to the persistence of its inventor, Spence Silver. He believed passionately that his idea had potential. He eventually connected with another colleague Art Fry, who suggested how his glue could be applied.
Successful product innovation is also a numbers game. If you create and assess many ideas the chance of success is greater than if you create and assess just one. The US Product Development and Management Association (PDMA)(2) found that ten serious ideas or concepts are needed to bring one product to market successfully. Products nurtured through a rigorous product development process have a greater chance of success, with around three quarters being launched compared with just under sixty percent overall. Considering innovation as a process also helps institutionalise or embed it in the corporate culture. At 3M, for example, innovation is defined as ‘a process that creates products that create a new basis of competition’.
5. Lack of team work
While many notable inventions are attributed to lone inventors, success is more often due to teamwork – combining several brains to reach a common goal.
Even great brand owners, such as Marks and Spencer experience failure; most notably when the decision to stock a pudding or shirt largely depended on the pleasure that it gave the Chairman of the company. One of the greatest film makers ever, Stephen Spielberg has also flopped; consider the allegedly self-indulgent comedy ‘1941’.
Assembling a team and creating the conditions for innovation to flourish has inspired many notable successes during the last century. These include the creation of the first jet fighter, and the first animated movie. Also brands such as Virgin Atlantic and the Friends tv series.
6. Lack of brand understanding or vision
Brands exist in the eyes of customers not just the management team. Understanding what customers consider existing, latent or potential strengths can catalyse innovation as much as widely held management views. Understanding perceived brand strengths and weaknesses can reveal new facets of a brand and provide new springboards or foundations for innovation. Caterpillar has been a leading manufacturer of heavy duty construction vehicles since 1925. Recognising the rugged strength of the brand amongst construction workers and the fact that industrial chic is a recurring theme in the fashion business spurred successful expansion into footwear. Within the company, footwear is considered a ‘walking machine’ – from professional steel toe capped work boots, to stylish slip-on comfort shoes; and now clothing and toys.
Having a clear idea where you want your business to go focuses team energy and activity. In the 1950s, Sony had a vision to ‘transform the poor worldwide perceptions of Japanese goods’. Today few Western homes fail to have at least one of their products on display. In the US, Mr. Clean (Flash in the UK, Monsieur Propre in France) has led household cleaning since the late 1950s. In the US the vision is now to extend the brand into car washing.
7. Lack of customer involvement
‘Research only dumbs down great ideas’. If we had a pound for every time we’ve heard this message we’d be a very rich people. This view is most evident in the creative industries. An industry where the gulf between the best and worst performers seems to widen every year.
Most assume that research means ’focus groups’. And perceptions are poor and thus lacking in credibility. Perhaps through poor experience or a belief that the sole purpose of research is ‘evaluation’. While evaluation research is useful this misses the point. Most consumers, even those as young as three or four, also have an innate creativity and marketing ‘savvy’. Further, all are different; have different backgrounds, beliefs, skills and ways of thinking. Most are also naturally social rather than solitary and like creating and working with others. It means that there is a vast pool of creative talent available to address your challenge. This is a boon to the product developer.
Here’s how to address the seven enemies of product innovation:
1. First, establish a process for innovation but tailor or flex it to different challenges and circumstances.
2. Create lots of ideas, give them time and conditions to grow. It’s easy to kill ideas but hard to develop them.
3. Consult and involve diverse colleagues in the development process. No-one has a monopoly on good ideas.
4. Use the right tools and techniques to bring out the best in your team. Creativity is not the preserve of the few.
5. Involve consumers in the new product development process. Used in the correct way they can both create and build great ideas.
(1) Cooper , Robert. G Winning at New Products, 1993
(2) Product Development and Management Association, http://www.pdma.org, 1991