Ideation, or concept generation, is the first step in the New Product Development (NPD) process but it is often the most difficult step for companies to execute productively. The simple reason for the failure of Ideation is that it is the least well defined NPD step and is at the “fuzzy” front end of Innovation. Typically Ideation is defined as, “identifying and defining consumer accepted product ideas and potential product concepts for market introduction”. Here I share some of my own personal experiences and opinions about what works during the Ideation process.
Innovation Teams … Ideation works well when it uses an Innovation team. This team may be an on-going team that works in a particular product category or it may be an ad hoc team formed to create new product concepts because of existing market pressures, such as a loss of market share or a competitor’s successful new product introduction. These teams are normally most successful when they draw people in from all parts of the company, not only Marketing and R&D, and when they are an on-going team embedded in an Innovation culture.
However Innovation teams are not the source of all idea generation; in fact far from it. Ideas can come from anywhere inside the company or even from outside the company if the company has a strong Innovation culture. Bill Gates used a “suggestion box” where he solicited product ideas from anyone in Microsoft. He would spend a week in retreat going over these ideas and fund the ideas he thought were most relevant. 3M had a program where anyone could suggest an NPD project. If accepted, the originator of the idea would be given “seed money” to prove its feasibility, and if feasible, might be asked to join the development team. Many “best in class” companies also use Open Innovation where outsiders, typically consumers or expert panelists, are involved in the Ideation process.
The “best in class” Innovation team is the mechanism for sorting and vetting product ideas and translating and adapting those ideas into product concepts that consumers will buy. The critical “adaptive” work at this stage of the NPD process is in producing detailed product claims, branding and other marketing details, packaging, pricing, and technical details including any new or existing technology platforms. However many companies lose sight of this more detailed goal of the Innovation team, and instead get giddy about a creative new idea and jump ahead with a project too quickly. Discipline at this stage is critical to future success.
Strategy must be in place … But before the team can start working together, several things have to be in place for Ideation to be successful. First, the company has to have a corporate strategy as well as an innovation strategy in place. The corporate strategy will outline in general terms the markets, market categories, market segments, sales channels and geographies in which the company will play. Innovation strategies were discussed in a previous post1 and address questions such as….Does the company want to be an innovator or a fast-follower? Are they looking for disruptive innovation or sustaining innovation? Are they looking for a “big idea”, a line extension, a product improvement or a steady stream of all three? These two strategies will help direct the Innovation team when they begin the Ideation process.
Creative and Adaptive Innovators … As discussed above, the composition of the Innovation team is very important. Team members need be interested in innovation and must be able to work together collaboratively. Not only should the team be diverse in terms of representing different parts of the company but team members should be an even mix of creative innovators and adaptive innovators. Think of “Leonardo da Vinci” types of people as “creative innovators” and “Thomas Edison” types as “adaptive innovators”2.
Adaptive innovators are skilled at refining and modifying the ideas that creative innovators originate and will generate practical product concepts that consumers want. Many companies focus too much on brainstorming and place less emphasis on other aspects of Ideation such as the role that adaptive innovators play. An Innovation team with too many creative innovators will create a large number of new product ideas but neglect to refine the ideas down to the details necessary for developing successful product concepts. This is where adaptive innovators earn their money.
The Innovation Process … How should the Innovation team work? I think it works best if it follows a set process. That might sound at variance with Ideation and the concept of creativity, but the Ideation process is much more than simply coming up with new ideas. The goal is to modify and “massage” product ideas into product concepts that consumers actually want and that are also practical and feasible. The R&D team members in the Innovation team are very important. They need to push for good science and new technology platforms. Good science leads to good products. Most innovative new products that are successful in the market have a technology component which is new for that market segment.
The Ideation process is an iterative process of scoping the consumer landscape by
- observing, interviewing and engaging with consumers as they use products and go about their daily lives;
- drawing analogies from other industries and other new product ideas;
- brainstorming, followed by modifying, adapting and improving the surviving product ideas and eliminating others that are less attractive; and
- testing and reviewing these ideas with consumers again until a “winning” product concept has been developed.
Ethnographic research can also be very valuable as an input into the Ideation process. This will help the “creative innovator” team members come up with completely new product concepts. The modifying and adapting of product ideas until a “winning” product concept is obtained is where the “adaptive innovators” will prove their worth.
Facilitating the Innovation Team … The Innovation team needs a strong facilitator to guide the team during the Ideation process. Often team members get excited, passionate and attached to certain ideas and it helps if someone impartial can direct and focus the team. The rules of conduct are important. The most productive teams agree to build positively on ideas and do not tolerate meeting “hogs” or disruptive members. Teams which are serious about performing well may even invite a third party to record and analyze meetings for positive and negative contributions3. This is not for the faint of heart or newly established teams but can help propel a team to a new level of performance.
At the Ideation stage it is better to keep “rejected” ideas/product concepts in a database for further consideration rather than eliminate them prematurely. The goal is to generate an over-abundance of potential product concepts that can be promoted to the feasibility stage of the NPD process. Ideas will eventually be eliminated at the Feasibility stage for various reasons, such as low consumer interest, technical unfeasibility, too expensive, not manufacturable etc. However, even ideas rejected for technical, financial or manufacturing reasons might become feasible in the future as new technologies emerge and so should be kept in a database for the Innovation team to reconsider periodically.
Best in Class Companies … For “best in class” companies, Innovation teams are strongly supported, well facilitated, meet regularly, and generate such a large number of good new product ideas that the company has to choose carefully which ones it will execute. “Best in class” companies manage their portfolio carefully by using a strong governance body to ensure the portfolio is balanced with to risk and project size4.
“Best in class” companies will:
- Not ideate outside of their corporate strategy
- Keep documentation to a minimum for the Concept/Feasibility gateway
- Require less detail for approval past the Concept/Feasibility gateway as exhaustive marketing, financial and technical data are not yet required
- Generate a large number of consumer-validated NP ideas with the understanding that many will be eliminated in the Feasibility stage
- Not permit too many NP ideas of one particular “type” so that the portfolio is balanced
- Replace every NPD project killed with an NP idea of greater value if possible
Summary … Google comes to mind as a good example of a company where Ideation has permeated the DNA of the company. In Google, upper management is fully engaged in the Ideation process and an Innovation culture pervades the entire company. Everyone in the company is looking at how to do things better, is invested in developing new exciting products, and has a forward-looking attitude. Even job applicants are asked to present a new product idea during the interview process. Google is a good example of disciplined ideation that results in Innovation Crescendo.
1. See previous post “Leading an Innovation Crescendo Part 1: Setting Direction with an Innovation Strategy”
2. See previous post “Investing for Innovation Crescendo Part 2: Spend on Talent”
3. Be sure to hire someone experienced in adapting and using these specific types of meeting tools. Ask about the tool’s metrics in advance when deciding on a service provider.
4. See previous posts “Perfecting your R&D Portfolio” and “Optimizing Projects for the Perfect R&D Portfolio”.
© Dennis Nelson 2013