Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The 2 Worst Sources of Product Innovation Ideas

If you're looking for ideas for new products or services, you should ask your sales people or your customers, right? Another bit of conventional wisdom that rarely works. If your sources of innovation are customers or sales people, you're probably not putting out very innovative products.

A Chief Executive Boards International member who makes OEM parts for large consumer goods posed the question in a recent meeting, "Why is it that my sales people call on customers all the time and never come back with ideas to improve our products, yet I can go walk a customer's assembly line where they're using our parts and see half a dozen ways to make our products easier for them to mount or install?" There are several reasons:
  1. You're doing the looking, rather than asking the customer to look for you 
  2. You know what's possible -- what materials, technologies, manufacturing processes, etc. might be employed in an improved product
  3. You're looking for problems, not solutions. Solutions take longer, and many times come in a form that doesn't even resemble the current product. 
  4. You're looking at where the product's used, not why it's bought
So, why does this member's process work so much better? Because most people (including sales reps) are usually asking customers the wrong questions. Here are some of those typical wrong questions asked of customers:
  • What else could we be doing for you? 
  • What features would you like to see in our products? 
  • How could we improve this (product or service)?
The problem with these questions is that they presume a huge amount of knowledge (what's possible) and a lot of imagination (not native to most people, customers included). So you don't get very many, or very good answers. And you may be asking the wrong people -- the buyers, rather than the end users. In this member's case, the right person is likely the guy on the line who's having trouble lining up the mounting holes on the part.  Or the engineer who's working around an inconveniently-located connection.

Sales people, of course, come in the door with a litany of product deficiencies -- features they say are essential. What are those? Their excuses for losing the last order to a competitor -- the "killer feature" that a customer gave as an excuse for giving the order to someone else.  If you design in these features over 1 product generation, you'll find yourself designing your competitor's last-generation product while he's working on something completely new and different. Not a good plan.

What we're talking about here is Product Management -- part science and part art form. The success principles of Product Management? Listen to customers, but listen for their pain. Where's their pain surrounding either your product or your business model? What pain are they hearing from their customers? Engage your customers' customers in the same conversation.

And, we're talking about Product Managers -- people who have a broad set of skills and who are (by nature and personality style) innovators, rather than problem solvers. They're looking at the horizon, not the rear view mirror, looking for the next product, largely unconcerned with the "how" of getting it built. They're usually a different breed of people than your sales people or application engineers.

The most successful product innovations I've seen have taken the form of a storyboard, mockup, physical model or "vaporware" product datasheet. You cook up 3 or 4 different innovative product ideas, usually using different technologies, materials, manufacturing processes or packaging than what your industry is used to. You present some sort of physical or graphic embodiment of the "new product". Sometimes these are presented to a focus group of key customers and end users, preferably "lead users" or "early adopters" -- customers (or customers' customers) who always seem to be interested in new things. You know from experience who those are. Or go to those same people individually.

What happens in focus groups is amazing -- people will "cherry pick" things they like about one mockup or the other. They'll add their own ideas, saying things like, "Well, if you could make it do that, could you.....?" The key is to get them thinking and talking, rather than just asking them, "How can we make it better?" They'll also tell you things like, "I'm not interested in that" or, "Makes no sense to me -- why would you do it like that?"   They do sometimes rain on what seem like good ideas to you. 

I was once upon a time in the commercial building controls business, and watched Product Management done both well and poorly. The difference? The questions the Product Managers asked. For example, one asked, "How can we make a digital controller easier to tune for the devices and processes it's controlling?" Tuning digital controllers used to take a lot of both time and skill. Another asked, "How can we make a digital controller with enough "smarts" -- an internal, real-time self-tuning algorithm that doesn't ever require tuning at all?" That was a game-changer for an industry, resulting in US Patent #5355305.  In fact, it was better than that -- the controller continuously retuned itself as conditions changed, like when outside air temperature was 80 or -20. A brochure-writer's dream come true.

No soccer mom ever called Detroit and said, "I want a completely new kind of vehicle -- call it a minivan."  Chrysler (read: Lee Iacocca) needed a game-changing vehicle -- a completely different idea for how to transport the active family of more than 4 people who also needed to take along a lot of stuff. A game-changer that probably saved a company, and spawned several more generations of innovation, both by Chrysler and others. They weren't the best cars ever made, and they didn't have to be. They were the only minivans available for several years.

There's nothing wrong with product improvements, but they're not the same. Product improvements are incremental, yet they can be tested on customers the same ways. Just ask, "What if we changed the product like this? How would that help you? How would that reduce your costs, improve your productivity or better serve your customers?" Try them on one at a time, or give them a list of 3-4 improvement ideas and ask them to rank them in order of interest, and then tell you why they ranked them that way.

Take a look at your Product Management and product innovation process. Are you happy with the results? Perhaps a different approach, asking completely different questions will be more successful.
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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International

Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it 

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