Most of us have lots of ideas. Some of them are good, while others don’t pan out. Our idea span from improving technology and devices to better health care. Ideas are born to solve the great big, hairy problems of the world and other ideas are simple in nature to help us with our daily habits. A few ideas are really stellar and gain enough traction to be commercialized, influencing generations of consumers, markets, and other companies.
In his book, “Breaking Out,” John Butman describes four stages in the growth and maturity of an idea so that it can positively influence our society. Ideas also follow similar stages in the transformation from concept to product. These stages are:
- Seeding (Fascination),
- Nurturing (Accumulation),
- Growth (Respiration), and
- Production (Enterprise).
Let’s take a look at each stage of an idea and how we, as innovation managers, can benefit from considering the life cycle of an idea.
Entrepreneurs often mull over ideas for years, taking bits and pieces of various experiences. They then tinker with solutions until the idea materializes. It is the recognition of a problem that seeds an idea.
This is what happened to George Ballas of Houston, Texas (USA). In Houston (where I live), the grass grows all year long. We need to mow the grass about every five days throughout the summer and at least every other week during “winter”. Until George’s invention in 1971, trimming along the sidewalk and around trees was a tedious task using hand clippers.
Ballas thought about how to make the job easier. And living in Houston, cutting the grass so frequently, he had a lot of time to think about the problem. One day, as George was getting his car washed, he was still thinking about how to simplify cutting the grass, and especially how to trim around the trees.
Inspired by the spinning nylon bristles of the car wash machine, Ballas decided that he had the answer. He went home and tested several designs of a spinning nylon thread. After spending $1M of his own money, the Weed Eater was born.
Ideas must be seeded with a problem. George Ballas’ problem was in cutting the grass quickly and efficiently, and with out the back-breaking work of the available solutions. (Incidentally, goats were also popular in Houston early in the 20th century but became illegal to keep in your front yard as suburban populations grew in the 1960s. Goats are very efficient at keeping the lawn short.)
Innovation and new product development (NPD) teams seek ideas in the problems they face themselves, as do entrepreneurs. But, for corporate innovation success, we must understand the problems’ that our customer face. Design thinking provides a set of tools that innovation practitioners use to build empathy for a customer’s problem. Among these tools are simple observation, shadowing, and customer journey maps. All of these techniques allow us to view a problem form our customer’s perspective and let us recognize and consider the various facets of each problem.
In “Breaking Out,” Butman calls the next stage “accumulation,” while NPD practitioners and innovation managers identify with “nurturing” the idea. George Ballas didn’t walk into his garage one day after mowing the yard and immediately build the perfect Weed Eater. Instead, he spent years considering the different aspects of the problem, testing potential solutions, and accumulating knowledge.
During the nurturing stage, design thinkers and innovators begin to define the problem in clear and concise terms. Bellas didn’t need to mow the yard quicker, he needed a way to trim around the trees efficiently and without damaging the bark. He accumulated knowledge, again by using tools like observation and experimentation.
NPD and innovation managers use nurturing to define and refine the problem statement. Most new products are not simply the addition of new features but are the manifestation of a set of functionalities wanted and need by customers.
Observation and questioning can help refine the problem. Asking customers why they perform tasks in certain ways can illumination limitations of current product solutions. Understanding their likes and dislikes of features in competitors’ products helps the NPD team narrow down a list of features and functions. (Goats are great for trimming the grass but create an unpleasant waste stream.)
Another tool that innovation managers use to clarify and verify the problem is a survey. Surveys can be done formally or informally and in-person, over the phone, or via the internet. Open-ended survey questions provide a framework for NPD teams to gather qualitative data as well, such as how customers feel about the problem or the product solution.
Design thinking is modeled by a two-step process: identify the problem and solve the problem. While identifying the problem, we need to discover and define the challenge that our customers face. This is the seeding and nurturing of an idea. In growing the solution, we are creating and testing alternatives to solve the customers’ problems. Or as John Butman describes it, the idea is gaining respiration.
Respiration and growth are terms we think about with breathing and health. In breathing, our lungs expand as they fill with life-giving air and then shrink as we expel carbon dioxide and other by-products. There is a rhythm to respiration as we inhale and exhale. And there is growth in the respiration as trees and flowers take in the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and growth in their bodies. Trees and plants then give off the oxygen that is necessary for human life. Respiration, then, is part of a larger ecosystem.
Ideas gain influence as they grow. As others inhale and exhale the core concepts of the idea, it becomes part of a larger ecosystem that is thinking, collaborating, and forming another concept. Innovation managers use this stage of respiration and growth to test various configurations of the product solution and to build a market for the product. Marketers call this “buzz”.
Some new products may be simple additions or enhancements to existing products. These new products take in quality improvements and competitor data to routinely grow a product family or ecosystem. Constant communication with customers builds insights in how product improvements can grow and satisfy a market.
Other new products utilize new technologies and create new markets. In these situations, respiration and “buzz” are tremendously important. As users become aware of a new product solution, they try it and tell their friends and family about it. As more people trial the new product, a firm gains more feedback on its utility and can offer continuous improvements in the product solution.
For example, Tide™ laundry detergent has been around over 70 years. Yet, the product we use today is not the same as our grandmothers used in 1946. Customers needs have changed, and the product has grown with these needs, including Liquid Tide, Ultra-Tide, and Tide with Downy. And as a testament to the product’s respiration, Tide was one of three brands that US households refused to give up during a recession (source: Wikipedia.com). Growth of a product follows the seeding and nurturing of an idea.
Production is the final stage in a product idea’s life cycle before the sequence repeats itself. For the entrepreneur, Butman calls this stage “enterprise”. Here an individual with a successful idea is able to finally commercialize it and expand the concept to really make a difference. For people that want to influence the world to change their gas-guzzling or unhealthy eating habits, the enterprise involves a multi-faceted product and service business, such as books, interviews, and videos.
For a company seeking innovation and new product success, production includes manufacturing, selling, and supporting the product and service. The idea was seeded by customer needs, the concept was nurtured with customer insights, and the product solution was grown through testing and feedback. Production might not be as glamourous as the earlier stages in innovation, but it is important to sustain the life of the product.
Some key aspects of production include quality control and market penetration.
Quality control becomes very important in new products as mass manufacturing is undertaken. To this point, the new product was tested in various configurations with different customers. Early adopters generated buzz about the product, but sales were still relatively small. The innovation team controlled pilot-scale manufacturing and distribution. Now, the company’s entire product system has to perform flawlessly.
Customers who have been using a new product will expect the same features and functionality even if they knew they were using a beta version. Yet, full-scale manufacturing often involves scaling back functionality so that the most critical features are included for the widest spectrum of potential customers. Niche users will also notice a better-looking product packaged more sleekly. It is crucial, as we discussed with growth, to maintain a product’s core functionality throughout its life cycle. These features are why the customer chooses this product over any other competitive solution.
As indicated, market penetration is a key goal of the innovation team during the production or enterprise stage. Revenues need to exceed expenses, generating profit for the organization. More customers must purchase and use the product. And in the most successful of innovations, the company overtakes the competition.
This latter characteristic is fundamental for disruptive innovation in which early adopters and niche users settle for a product with some lower quality features in order to access specific functionality or convenience. But, as the new product progresses to production, its performance must improve to match or overtake the competition. Majority customers are not willing to sacrifice money, time, or effort for a new product that only offers an incremental improvement over their current solution.
Creating Idea Influences
John Butman’s book, “Breaking Out,” categorizes the life cycle of an idea as fascination, accumulation, respiration, and enterprise. An entrepreneur may follow this pathway with an idea, and ideas may proceed past a given stage.
On the other hand, innovators follow a life cycle of product ideas: seeding, nurturing, growth, and production. Both idea entrepreneurs and NPD teams need to observe and get feedback from their audience of potential customers. Companies succeed and profit when the products they design and develop inspire and motivate people within a market.
New product seeding comes with observing and empathizing with consumers and end-users. What is their challenge? What do they like and what do they dislike about today’s available products?
Once a problem has been identified, the innovation team must nurture a solution. Nurturing involves clearly and succinctly defining the problem. Can you describe the customer’s challenge in less than three sentences? Can you measure the efficiency of a potential solution? Do prospective customers and end-users agree to the problem statement?
Innovation teams often begin to formulate solutions to customer problems while they nurture and define the challenge. During the growth stage of innovation, specific features and functions are identified and tested. These may be add-ons to an existing product (Tide with Febreze) or may involve new technologies and new market approaches. Growth involves testing and validating product and service solutions. Do niche customers adopt the solution? Which feature is most important in solving the problem? What insights do we gain from customer feedback?
Finally, the product or service is ready for production. The innovation team transfers manufacturing and distribution to the operational divisions within the company. Measures of product success involve both financial rewards and customer satisfaction. Is quality control sustained? Does the product generate a profit? Are we gaining market share?
What Are You Waiting For?
Entrepreneurs looking to expand their influence will want to read “Breaking Out” by John Butman. Innovators in medium- and large-sized organizations need to systemize their new product programs. Join me in an NPDP Workshop or Self-Study Course. And if you really want to accelerate your innovation efforts, join our Innovation Master Mind group.
The inaugural Innovation Master Mind group, starting in late November 2018, will also include a focus on the Virtual Team Model from PDMA’s Essentials 3 volume describing innovation constraints and challenges. This is a great kickoff for future brainstorming and collaboration in the Innovation Master Mind group. Joining the Innovation Master Mind will help you to create specific measurable and actionable goals and to commit to steps to achieving them wherever your ideas are currently in the life cycle. You agree to both give and receive help with like-minded CIOs and NPD managers. You will reap the rewards of faster time-to-market with new product introductions and increased profitability. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717 now to apply for the Innovation Master Mind cohort starting November 2018.
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