Insight for Innovation ®

Here, you will find thought-provoking (and perhaps smile-provoking) resources developed for product innovation professionals. Your feedback is not only welcome, it is actively encouraged. Feel free to comment on the Fresh Insights blog, download articles and peruse the original cartoons. Thanks for looking in.

January 7, 2013

Design Research Pitfalls (New Cartoon!)

Occasionally, clients will ask me to conduct research on an array of package concepts that are well down the path in cost and feasibility assessment.  They want consumers to select from a tight range of actionable concepts, even if those concepts vary in extremely subtle ways.  There’s nothing wrong with showing consumers actionable designs.  However, when they are hardly distinct, the research could backfire big time.  Here’s why:

  • A lack of distinction across the stimulus array will make it hard for consumers to find and articulate the perceptual and functional differences that impact them.
  • Minute distinctions may mask an underlying opportunity to exceed consumer expectations.  Often you may hear them say “It doesn’t really matter”.  Here, there’s no way you’re going to be surprised.
  • A lot of time and money may have been spent on prototypes that suggest derivatives of a final design rather than preliminary concepts for exploration.  Concepts should always look and feel “early-stage” so that consumers will believe their input counts.    Unless, of course, you are conducting usability testing.
  • As suggested by the rather silly caption above, it’s very difficult to get at the emotional and lifestyle underpinnings of choice when everything looks generic.  Marked distinctions are much more likely to elicit comments about “fit”.

So even if you have little inclination to move into production with every concept you show, show a disparate range.  You’ll learn much more about what works for the consumer–perceptually, functionally and emotionally.  And you can use that learning to refine the concepts you can execute.  There are many ways to do this to avoid the prototype trap:  Found objects; Consumer Promise statements and attribute-driven concept boards can work together to build fresh insight that will provide focused direction for concept refinement.

In sum, showing just what you can (or want to) make in a derivative range ignores the role of the consumer in your inquiry.  But give them distinctive options to chew on and they will reward you with new learning, fresh opportunity and an actionable solution.  And that works for everyone.

December 3, 2012

‘Tis the Season…to be Ominous, Obscure and Irrelevant. (Holiday cartoon!)

If your Sunday newspaper looked anything like mine a few weeks ago, it was twice it’s usual size–stuffed with retail brochures touting “Black Friday” savings.  But not just post holiday savings.  “BLACK FRIDAY” savings.  Which didn’t start or end on Friday.

We all know where this term came from.  It’s the day most retailers begin to gather a whoppingly large percentage of their profits for the year.  But when did it become a marketing message?  Do consumers understand the term “Black Friday”?  Should they?  Regardless, retailers seem to think consumers know Black Friday means ridiculously cheap stuff.  On Friday.  Or Thursday through Sunday, leading into Cyber Monday.

What’s with all the corporate speak that’s passing as marketing copy?  Can’t we do better than to expect consumers to process the language we use to gauge our own performance?  The cynic in me believes that retailers have simply folded shamelessly in their efforts to convince consumers their products and brands have value.  They’ve given up.

And by the way, what’s with use of the exclamation “Door Buster Savings”, as in “Get Black Friday Deals with Door Buster Savings!!!”  Don’t people get trampled every year in true door-buster fashion in their quest for the obsolete $19 DVD player?  New rule:  Why don’t we stop coining phrases as marketing messages that can help incite riots outside retail establishments.

As the year draws to a close, let’s look back at the marketing communications we use to motivate consumers.  At the very least, we should ask if it’s relevant to them.  Do they understand it?  Is it misleading?  Respectful of their intelligence?  And, are we undermining our own brand-building efforts as the result?

Rant over.  Have a fabulously warm, relaxing and enjoyable holiday season.  And don’t worry–Black Friday will come around again in no time.

August 27, 2012

Design Strategy: The Missing Link in Innovation Success?

I’m convinced that unrecognized market insights are the strongest drivers of successful innovation.  Without fresh and valid insight, the rest is just misguided process—a hammer looking for a nail, if you will.  But in my experience, there are two kinds of market insight, each with merit:

  • “Shallow” insights focus on functional or perceptual gaps.  Identifying these may be critical to ensuring parity performance or leapfrogging competition if that’s the game you’re playing.  I’d call these “observations” rather than insights because they are just that:  Out there for everyone to see.  Easy to spot in research, but not often defensible.  We may call them “friction points” or “workarounds”.  But perhaps they are the right target when you’re looking to evolve, enhance or extend a product line.
  • “Deep” insights are the transformative underpinnings of attitudes and behavior.  They deliver competitive advantage because they are interpretive rather than obvious.  They are true insights because they are derived from reading between the lines in what consumers say and do.  From connecting the often emotional dots sitting beneath several observations.  And from looking well beyond standard issue opportunities that limit your efforts to “fixes” and enhancements.  Deep insights are what we want if we are to reinvent a category, create a new usage occasion or surface a truly unrecognized need.

OK, now that we’ve determined whether our innovation challenge demands Shallow Observations or Deep Insights, how can we ensure that they effectively drive concept development rather than sadly fall through the cracks of our well-intentioned, multi-staged process?  Consider this five-step approach to building a bridge from superior insights to outstanding design:

1)    Create a work output continuum that builds toward a focused design direction your creative team can sink their teeth into.  For example, use insights to define a series of testable Consumer Promises.  Support these Promises with simple, early stage concepts that help lend clarity to their intent and bring them to life for consumers.

2)    Use this understanding to agree on what attributes consumers care most about in your category.  Bucket those attributes into Emotional, Perceptual and Functional dimensions.  Then, identify the gaps in consumer expectations.

3)    Use the most compelling Consumer Promise(s) and the most desired features and attributes to drive a set of Innovation Platforms.  Innovation Platforms provide concept development guidance and inspiration by describing the “what” of a new offering rather than the “how”.

4)    Ask your creative team to use these Innovation Platforms to drive their exploration.  That will ensure they go a mile deep against what you’re solving for and consumers care about—rather than a mile wide on stuff that’s off strategy.

5)    Then, integrate the best executions across Platforms to build coherent solutions.   Be sure to develop meaningful criteria for execution and concept evaluation:  Agree on what a “good idea” is and has to do for the brand, the marketplace and the organization.

A Design Strategy that is grounded in proper insights—and then properly carries them forward—is the missing link in innovation success.   It focuses creativity on delivering breakthrough Consumer Promises.  It builds team consensus that tells a progressive story and informs excellent decisions.  And best of all, it won’t let those game-changing insights (or observations) disappear into the innovation process abyss.

February 7, 2012

Brainstorming: Squashing Individual Brilliance?

An interesting essay in the New York Times a few weeks ago got me thinking about the perils of “groupthink”.  Nothing really new there, but the piece went on to propose that breakthrough ideas typically grow out of individual effort rather than teamwork.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve believed that since I got into this business 20 odd years ago.

I’ve been invited to participate in countless brainstorming and ideation sessions over the years.  It’s become clear to me that without proper leadership and structure, these team events can dilute, stifle and snuff out the best ideas in the name of collaboration and buy-in.  I call it mind-mashing.  It’s horrible to watch.  But it’s also extremely easy and rewarding to defeat.

I believe that the most focused, on-strategy ideas spring from individual thinking.  And such an individual can be anyone, from anywhere in the organization, without regard for function, experience or reputation for creativity.  I’ve seen some of the best ideas spring from the minds of those considered the least likely to contribute in that way.  And I’ve also seen some of the best ideas never see the light of day because of that perceptual handicap.

So why are organizations–and innovation functions in particular–so enamored with teams and mind-mashing ideation sessions?  Here are a few reasons:

  • Management believes that all relevant functions must have a hand in surfacing and nurturing ideas, no matter how preliminary.  Without input from those with varied backgrounds and experience, an idea has no shot at becoming real, no matter how powerful.  As the result, a great idea can be scrapped or diluted early on in the name of action-ability and organization fit.
  • There’s a need to obtain buy-in across the organization to generate excitement, motivate involvement and secure resources.  This seems quite valid to me, but I’d argue that a great idea should spend more time in a protected incubator before pushed out into the world to fend for itself.
  • In some organizations, idea generation and development quickly become team-owned because of a culture that values credit sharing and/or diffusion of responsibility.  Organizations innately seek to manage risk, and this is a good thing.  But I wonder if spreading risk and reward around has as its cost the suppression of some game-changing ideas?
  • There’s the notion that the inclusion of more minds represents a more reliable and valid sample of available brainpower.  If eight team members concur on an idea, it’s likely a safer and better bet than if one person enlisted the help of others to realize a more daring one.   I’m not convinced.

Why does the solo mind work better, at least in the preliminary idea generation phase?  To combine my thinking with that of the New York Times:

  • The solo mind is often free of distractions.  Team meetings can be intimidating, frustrating and stressful for solo idea generators.  Solo work often has more uninterrupted time to focus, which allows ideas to be pushed farther.
  • A single, passionate point of view keeps an idea on track.  It allows for more dedicated problem-solving and is better able to keep an objective in sight.
  • There’s often less concern for group politics and processes that can disrupt creative thinking.
  • The suppressed instinct to ensure that the idea solves for every constraint and addresses every need.  The solo mind is free to optimize a potential solution rather than maximize it.

We see Mind-Mashing in all kinds of innovation-related activities.  Focus groups are a huge offender.  They are the original and best “groupthink” delivery system.  Also, a thoughtful strategic direction can suffer when it must represent all things to all people.  But unstructured ideation sessions can be the ultimate group grope, where individual thinking doesn’t stand a chance if not properly nurtured throughout the process.  Then, concept evaluation efforts can be the best way to kill that one transformational idea when it is misunderstood and ditched too early.

I know.  It all looks bleak.  But let me say that there are easy ways out of the mind-mash mosh-pit.  A little tweak in how you interact with consumers.  A fiddle with the way you structure ideation sessions.  A twist to how you develop and screen concepts.  The process changes are pretty intuitive and simple, if you recognize the opportunity.  Feel free to ask me for more details.  The greater challenge is meeting resistance of an organization that wants to collectively glom on to every initiative from day one.  It will be the solo thinker who figures out how to dodge that one, too.

December 5, 2011

Insight for Innovation: Falling Through the Cracks?

In the world of product and package innovation, cross-functional project teams are great for pulling functional experts together and integrating work processes.  But even the tightest of teams often can’t prevent critical work output from slipping through the cracks as they move from stage to stage.  So, key consumer insights can be lost in devising strategy, and mission-critical strategies can go unfulfilled in concept development.   Fresh consumer insights are precious.  When they are lost, projects don’t have a chance.  How does this happen on a project team that is seemingly humming on all cylinders?

  • Under intense time pressure, teams can sometimes get too wrapped up in moving through the process steps.  When it’s all about meeting deadlines, content can be neglected or watered down in favor of reaching agreement and moving forward.
  • Innovation process tools often don’t bridge stages properly, providing no structured mechanisms for making sure that key outputs find a home and are properly leveraged.  Gaping seams in the process are magnified by functional distinctions, leaving outputs hard to digest and incorporate in following stages.  As a derivative of above, insights and strategies can be interpreted differently by team members, and subtle meaning can be lost in hand-offs.
  • It can be difficult to build consensus among team members on all fronts:  What are we really solving for?  Which insights are most critical?  What criteria do we use to evaluate concepts?  How do we set priorities among strategies for functional and perceptual utility?  Inevitable compromise can mean wishy-washy output that pushes a project off course.
  • Early-stage concepts try to deliver on all requirements when they should be exploring the best ways to deliver on individual, highly-valued attributes.  Then, many are trashed when they are determined to be infeasible.  The shame of this is that these preliminary ideas may have been the hiding places for key insights that were not properly executed in the concept.  When the concept is discarded, so is the place-holder for valuable intelligence.

What’s the answer to bridging the gaps in innovation?  You can probably guess by reading between the lines above.  But to bottom-line it:  Consider one seamless process to drive work stages across functional divides.  Integrated research, analytical and communications tools can work together to help focus the team on what matters at each stage.  They can articulate insights and strategies in clear fashion to build consensus without diluting or distorting output.  And they can drive concept development to best solve for key consumer requirements.

So don’t let the insidious flaws of teams and processes allow your next innovation project to fall through the cracks.  Build strong bridges with the right tools.

October 26, 2011

Innovation Risk: An Obsolete Cartoon Tells the Story

I created this cartoon almost 10 years ago.  Back then, companies were feeling their way around innovation, but still rather two-faced about their commitment to the discipline.  Management would openly acknowledge that innovation programs could fail without repercussion for the team and its members.  Publicly, leadership would pronounce that managing a portfolio of innovation programs might yield one or two winners, and the failures were of value for the learning acquired.  No harm done, no careers lost.

But they didn’t behave that way.  Years ago, product innovation groups played host to individuals who often didn’t “fit” in the mainstream, more respected product management career path.  The strongest managers steered clear of innovation work, thinking of it as an academic exercise focused on phase gates and forwarding innovation “science”.  As well, they feared being marginalized or out of the action in visibility and business impact.  Innovation teams toiled in anonymity, infrequently sharing progress, less frequently touting good news and happy to stay below the corporate radar.  Or at best, they would fight to be heard at every staff and budget meeting.  No one knew what was going on down there in the skunk works.  And worse, few cared.

So management continued to outwardly profess that failure was welcome as a learning experience, and the organization was slowly improving the odds of success.  But the culture of selecting talent and limiting awareness made for a political climate that continued to disproportionately reward core business managers who are generating revenue today at the expense of those who were, in all actuality, trusted with the future.  Unexpectedly, those who chose a job in innovation often found themselves with plenty of psychic rewards,  and more comfortable in a work environment where the creative, strategic and intellectual aspects of strategy, research, design and testing suited them better than the high-visibility, daily trial-by-fire of product management.

This era is finally over–I think.  And this cartoon is thankfully obsolete–perhaps.  So much has changed, though slowly.  A degree of innovation process discipline generated a body of learning over time that began to bear fruit with more frequent success.  Academic irrelevance gave way to practical and proven tools.  These successes and the visibility they generated began to draw interest from those who wouldn’t consider the innovation path before.  Management realized that squeezing blood from the monolithic brand stone was becoming more expensive and less impactful.  Brand management and innovation got to know one another.  And innovation was redefined from swinging for the fences every time to looking for singles and doubles that didn’t disenfranchise consumers and customers, and reduced execution risk for the organization.

It all added up to newfound success in the marketplace.  Good people are now rewarded for taking a previously “risky” career path, and have realized that the skills collected are worth at least as much in the job marketplace as those acquired by sticking to brand management.  Knowing how to deal with uncertainty, solve problems and drive growth have become desirable attributes, and dare I say—cool.  And as companies began to show less loyalty to their people overall, these skill- and character-building jobs have become sought after in a world where the best employees look to take back control of their careers.

So what might this cartoon look like today?  Maybe there’s no longer a need to make a statement about the culture surrounding innovation at all.   But I doubt that’s yet the case.  I have a few ideas, but how about you tell me.  And, if you think this cartoon still speaks the truth, I’d sure like to hear about that, too.

July 13, 2011

On the Same Page? Building Team Consensus in NPD

I apologize in advance if this new cartoon offends anyone.  But I post it here to make a point about building team consensus around proposed innovation solutions.  That is:  It’s hard.

Reaching concurrence on direction taken in new product and package development is a key driver of project success.  That’s because solutions that are imposed on team members in dissent face challenges that erode collaboration and impede implementation.  Dissenters feel they aren’t being heard, or their opinions don’t count.  Or that the chosen solution poses execution risk for them.

I’ve observed that there are a handful of issues that can pull teams apart, and they are typically in place long before a key decision point.  What are these insidious forces?  And what compensating measures can defeat them, and hold teams together to ensure consensus when it’s needed?  The chart below is my effort to put them on the table.

No, I’m no Industrial Psychologist (though I came close early on).  But after years of study and work with client teams in all kinds of companies, these seem to be the make-or-break issues for collaboration.  Your take on it is welcome.

April 19, 2011

Attribute-Oriented Innovation: Preference Over Process

And, of course, a new KMG cartoon!

Clients tell me that their typical innovation process starts with need identification to drive new concepts.  Likely, these early stage concepts mix and match features in an attempt to meet all requirements in various ways.  Features overlap across concepts, and variables such as form and utility aren’t standardized.  So, as the next step in the process, consumer feedback is flawed, if not invalid.  I call this the “Create and Evaluate” approach.

Sure, there’s the chance that one concept will “nail it”, but it can’t possibly be optimized.  And asking consumers to pick their favorite of the bunch is an exercise in relative, not absolute performance–if it is not simply validating the team’s preconceptions.  Even if we ask consumers why they prefer one concept over another, we can’t really know what independent characteristics drive preference and value in this process.  We can choose an attractive concept, but we can’t optimize a solution.

I’ve created an approach to the design process that I call  Attribute-Oriented Innovation.  It basically turns the process outlined above inside-out.  It allows us to use research to clearly identify the most desired attributes and then build the optimized concept.  But first, what’s an attribute?  Simply put, it is a physical characteristic–either functional, perceptual or emotional in impact–that has utility for consumers.  How does AOI work?

  • Early occasion-based or need-state-driven research is used to identify the functional, perceptual and emotional gaps that present opportunities for design.  These key insights drive an explicit design strategy.
  • An early design exploration then  surfaces a wide range of product or package attributes that are conceived as independent “concepts”.   But they are not concepts in the traditional sense.  They are the building blocks.
  • These attribute building blocks are then assembled in a set of rational concepts that can be effectively screened with consumers.  Classic research principles govern how attributes are arrayed and variables are held constant.
  • Concept screening tools (see Consumer Lab) identify the strongest set of attributes, their preferred executions and a set of preliminary “optimized” product or package configurations.
  • Only then can true concept generation and development take place.  The result is a tight range of fully integrated and optimized concepts that incorporate the most desired attributes.
  • Final concept evaluation identifies the best execution for development.

The point:  AOI ensures that concepts deliver on the most valued requirements in discrete ways.  So they are easy for the team to evaluate, match to criteria and screen with consumers.  And the chosen solution is sure to not only perform as it should, but do it in the best possible way.  And that’s how it wins over the standard “Create and Evaluate” paradigm.

March 19, 2011

Fresh KMG Cartoon! VOC – When to Stop Listening

I know…this would never happen at your company.  But it could–if you let it.

Consumers are eager to tell you all the ways they struggle with your package, and what new features would compel them to buy and cement their loyalty forever.  They will blackmail you with expectations for over-the-top functionality that will make the world safe again for on-the-go snacking.  Or bathroom cleaning.  Or…

So how do you reconcile consumer “requirements” with the real-life constraints you live with in R&D?  Here are some questions to ask yourself when faced with numerous stated consumer expectations you can’t possibly fulfill.

  • Forget about features.  What are the perceptual and functional attributes consumers care about most?  Can you define and rank them?  It’s not enough to say “maintain freshness” is a critical attribute.  How should you execute on that?  Should you do so at all given the usage dynamics of the product?  Perhaps perceptual cues that signal freshness would do the job, given that true freshness is likely sufficient.
  • What’s the key consumer promise your product makes?  What’s the role of packaging in delivering it?  Are there gaps?  If your product is all about the foaming action that lifts dirt, what can the package do better to bring that to life, both perceptually and functionally?  The point is to look beyond the utility of packaging alone, and consider the integrated, singular product/package promise consumers will understand and value.  Ignore consumer “requirements” that don’t support that promise unless your package is leaving some critical, category-standard utility on the table.
  • What incremental utility will your consumer ultimately pay for?  This is the age-old question without many good answers.  But with the right approach, it’s one reasonable way to decode what’s mission critical and what’s just dip on the chip.  How might you approach this?  I use some “relative value” and “asset allocation” tools that don’t ask consumers to pick an absolute price, and can help tremendously.  Feel free to ask me about them.
  • Are you taking consumer requirements too literally?  Just because consumers say they need a better grip on your drink bottle doesn’t mean they should get one.  Assuming this attribute is high-ranking, there are various ways to deliver on it without adding tangible gripping features.  Maybe its about stability.  Or spilling.  Or proportion.  Or more likely, as suggested above, your consumer is laundry-listing “expectations” since you asked them, and she doesn’t really care.

As we all know, the voice of the customer can be loud and relentless, if not grating at times.  Your job is to bring a rational, thoughtful and analytical perspective to their demands.  And maybe even some ear plugs.

October 21, 2010

New Original Cartoon: Mining for Fresh Consumer Insights

Here, I’m trying to suggest that it’s easy to gather learning from research, but it’s really tough to unearth game-changing, unrecognized and leveragable insight.  Read more below:

Is it all about the tools?  Partly, in the same way that auto racing is about the car.  I prefer to say that surfacing breakthrough insights is about both Tools and Talent.  And as you may know, it’s hard to find them both under one roof.

Tools: Here, I don’t mean making choices between ethnography and the focus group.  I mean the uniquely effective take on research methods that exposes true underlying need states.  Or perhaps a concept screening technique that asks consumers to focus on desired attributes rather than just voting for their favorite idea. Or even the kind of consumer interaction that eliminates group think and gets at real emotional underpinnings.  Choosing the method is easy.  Perfecting a technique is what separates standard-issue data gathering from surfacing deep, valid and instructive insights.

Talent: Execution is everything.  But by that I don’t mean just nailing the logistics. I’m referring to a whole host of skills that enable the connection among observations, that sees something unspoken and pivotal in an activity, and can probe an interaction to extract unexpected value.  How?  Can’t be taught.  It’s a skills recipe that includes:

  • Empathy to win trust
  • Analytical abilities to group and extrapolate observations
  • Strategic thinking that can focus on solving for key objectives
  • Organization skills that can present findings in a digestible and vivid way
  • Communications skills that can tell a story and build consensus.

Where do you find both the Talent and the Tools that can change the rules in your category?  Go deep…

If you enjoyed this cartoon, let me know and I can send you others (both past and upcoming) on a range of innovation topics.  Or, you can click on the Original Cartoons link in this blog.

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