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.

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.

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.

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.

March 2, 2011

Package Efficiency and Consumer Input: Contradiction?

Why bother gathering consumer input on package changes?  I recently came across a survey of packaging managers that queried them on the biggest issues they face.  The top responses were “Production and efficiency improvements” and “Cost cutting”.  Responses such as “Meeting changing consumer needs” or “Delighting the customer” weren’t even on the list.

That’s ok.  These are tough times for consumer products companies.  Rising commodity costs.  Private labels eating their lunch.  The consumer strapped for cash.  Who can blame these managers for looking for spare change in every seat cushion?

Does this mean that consumers have nothing to add to this conversation about cutting costs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, consumer input may be even more critical in this environment than it was in the bygone, free-wheeling, give-em-what-they-want era.  That’s because downgrading materials and reducing functionality is a risky business.  It can easily denigrate a brand, alter an experience and alienate loyal consumers.  For companies going down the efficiency path (all of them), I’d propose the following:

  • Explore ways to engage with consumers that can help rationalize changes.  What attributes are most important to them?  What elements of the experience are most critical to loyalty?  What features best deliver on the performance promise the brand and the product make?  There are lots of ways to do this, but the best ones rely on an attribute-oriented investigation.
  • Don’t expose consumers to models and renderings depicting changes and asking them which they prefer.  That kind of inquiry is fraught with bias and confusion.  They will always pick the one you don’t want to produce.  But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t do just fine with less.  See the point above.
  • If nothing else, do a “disaster check” on the new design.  Put prototypes in consumers’ hands.  Let them view it “on shelf” in a competitive context.  Let them use it for a few days.  Ask them how the new package stacks up both functionally and perceptually.  Listen for any erosion to the brand and the user experience.

So, don’t get discouraged when your packaging manager tells you that it’s all about cost cutting and not about the consumer.  Because it is.  And it is.  Think of this as an opportunity to hone your offering down to it’s cleanest, clearest promise.  To provide the consumer with exactly what they want–nothing more to distract them, and nothing less to disenfranchise them.  These are fascinating times that force us to get better at what we do.  It’s good for us, good for our firms and good for the consumer…though they won’t say so.

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.

June 16, 2010

Another Original Cartoon! Ideation Frustration

Yes, another cartoon.  Kindly indulge me.  This one pokes fun at the frustration some teams face with their internal brainstorming efforts.  Often, teams struggle to manage their own creative energy, and to generate output that is focused, on-strategy and actionable.


Here’s why I think ideation activities can fail:

  • Teams have an abundance of creative talent, but they may not have the tools to organize and focus it.
  • Consumer insights aren’t properly framed up to inspire and guide brainstorming.
  • Teams remain committed to the edict that “there are no bad ideas”.  See a previous post on this fallacy.
  • There’s no consensus on what a good idea is, or a coherent process for evaluating them.
  • Too much time is spent generating ideas, and not nearly enough on screening, integrating and recasting them.

But I think the biggest barrier is a more fundamental one.  Teams typically assume that the appropriate outcome of an ideation session is a small set of fully-fashioned, cohesive concepts that perform some combination of desired utility.  This may sound right, but in cases where the team is charged with inventing the truly new, it’s asking too much to walk out of the room with compelling, optimized solutions.

Instead, what if your ideation sessions focused on surfacing the best ways to deliver on a range of desired utilities?  The goal should be to originate well-defined feature or attribute sets that deliver on a strong consumer promise.  These may look like concepts–in pictures and/or words–but they represent the “what” rather than the “how” of typical concepts that try to do everything, but do nothing particularly well.

Here’s an example.  In my case study on crayon packaging, research showed that kids are enthralled by an initial spectacular array of color upon opening the package, but then quickly dig in to find their favorite colors.  I’ll bet there are a hundred ways in which a crayon package concept could present an array of color to visually inspire and excite kids.  Why not focus on that in isolation for a while?  And, there are another hundred ways that a package could assist kids in storing and finding their favorite colors.  Show me some!

Then, the evaluation process becomes one of assessing which attributes do the best job of delivering on the recognized needs.  The next step is to integrate the most compelling attributes into cohesive concepts.  So more time is spent building, testing and integrating ideas instead of spilling out scads of concepts on the odd chance that one will do it all, and do it right.

I call this Attribute-Oriented Innovation (AOI).  It’s an approach I devised as another way to look at ideation, concept development and screening.  It’s not always the right way to go, but when it is, it works.  Ask me about Precision Ideation–my way to incorporate AOI in ideation sessions that will:

  • Translate consumer insights into inspiring and actionable drivers of innovation.
  • Articulate compelling features and attributes brought to life real-time in words and pictures.
  • Focus creative energy to build the most promising early-stage concepts, with clear direction for development.

You can read more about Precision Ideation under the Tools section of this site.  And, you can see more cartoons right here, too!

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