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May 24, 2011

Imposing Constraints in Concept Exploration: If, When and How

The evaluation of internal capabilities and constraints is a vital element of successful innovation.  Nothing gets made if it can’t be made.  Or if the investment is too great.  Or if it takes too long.  When we refer to “capabilities and constraints” we almost always mean the production side of the house.  Technology, tooling, line configurations, etc.

But there are other constraints worthy of evaluation, too.  Do we have the distribution system in place?  Can we ship efficiently?  Can the product take incremental shelf space or enter a section we don’t currently occupy?  Is the promise right for the brand in the minds of consumers?  Is it credible?  Where does it sit in the positioning mix?  Do we have the resources to launch and communicate?  And what about intellectual property?

Now, consider your new concept exploration and development process.  When does it make sense to introduce these constraints?  And should they govern the ideation effort?  I’ve heard both sides of the argument from clients and creatives.  Clients have occasionally instructed me:  “I don’t care what we can do.  Tell us what we should do!”  A righteous attitude, but flawed if taken to the extreme.  On the other side, I’ve had design directors tell me that  “If the client likes the idea enough, they’ll figure out how to do it.”  Philosophically pure…but just as flawed.  And, of course, I’ve watched as innovation teams scratch early stage ideas purely on feasibility grounds.

Where do I come out?  To me, there’s a difference between acknowledging constraints and allowing them to filter early stage concept exploration.  I believe that establishing an early, common understanding of constraints across functions is important, but not for the obvious reasons.

  • It forces everyone to look beyond technology and production to the assessment of other capabilities.
  • It secures buy-in from all parties and reduces the likelihood that any one function will torpedo ideas before their time.
  • It gives every player a platform to educate the team on issues that may be relevant to the project at some point.

It’s important to acknowledge that the R&D folks aren’t always the naysayers, and shouldn’t be.  As mentioned, limitations in brand imagery, marketing resources, distribution, legal, etc. are all legitimate culprits.  I’ve invented a structured yet painless way to surface all this information early in an innovation project.  Feel free to ask me about the “3-C Matrix” I use to build buy-in and ensure the team is mindful of organization-wide issues.

With regard to allowing these constraints to inform concept exploration, the word “mindful” is key.  Here I cite the difference between surfacing limitations and using them as iron-clad criteria to evaluate early ideas.  Preliminary concepts are typically driven by an underlying promise or benefit that may have real appeal.  The concept may be presented in a literal way that makes it infeasible.  What happens when it is scrapped because of how it looks?  A great, game-changing notion is dismissed along with it.  People are visual.  They respond to what they see.  If it looks like something that will tie the organization in knots, out it goes.

This first, early-stage concept review is the precise time to “save” ideas that shouldn’t need saving.  If only the team could get past how it’s represented and focus on what it represents.  That’s why I like to present ideas at their simplest, accompanied by a promise statement linked to a key insight that can’t be overlooked.  Each idea does one thing well, anchored in a key insight and described in words.  That way, nothing falls through the cracks.  My approach, called Attribute-Oriented Innovation, helps focus concept exploration just this way.

That said, when is it the right time to introduce constraints in the evaluation process?  Get through the preliminary concept review without nixing ideas for implementation/execution reasons.  Then, with the constraints review in hand, go about refining the strongest ideas.  Many may not be actionable as originally proposed, but could be a space-holder for a very compelling idea.  No doubt, there’s another feasible way for delivering on the promise or key benefit.  If that proves not to be the case in the next concept iteration phase, then drop it.  But make sure the promise or benefit, if worthwhile, is not forgotten.  Find another home for it.

So, the trick is to look beyond a preliminary sketch when evaluating early stage ideas.  It’s tempting to accept or reject just what we see.  But make sure that concept’s reason for being is clear in promise and benefit statements so that it’s not judged on 2 minutes worth of execution consideration.  You’ll be amazed at how rich the refined concepts become–and the buy-in you get among the functional players that will soon bring them to life.

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