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How do we come up with good new product ideas?

I have worked with many companies and teams and have found that sometimes companies have lots of ideas, but no idea on what to do with them. While other companies are stuck on the same old ideas over and over again with no “significant” new product introductions to speak of, resulting in a slow and sometimes rapid decline in their competitive position.

There are specific skills and practices associated with the front end activities of development that can help any company improve its ability to detect, define and harvest the best ideas with the best chance of success. Let’s explore some of these today and see if we can start you on a path of creating a front end system of concept generation that takes some of the “fuzziness” out of the process.

Ah yes, the fuzzy front end (FFE) is where it all begins with an ideas and possibilities, that we vet and transform into concepts, feasibilities and product definitions. PDMA now calls this phase of the product development cycle the “Discovery” phase, and sometimes you will hear people refer to it as the “product planning” phase. But I still like to call it the fuzzy front end because we simple don’t know all the answers, or for that matter, all the questions, in the early stages of going from an idea into a final winning product.

If we look at the fuzzy front end as a black box, we have inputs in the form of “ideas” and “possibilities”, a process to collect, sort, cultivate and harvest ideas that become outputs in the form of “sufficiently” defined concepts / opportunities. These concepts should have enough definition so we can judge if they have merit and worth consideration of product development screening.

Stating the obvious – all new products start as an idea, be it

• A direct question from a customer: “do you have a gadget or solution that does….,”
• Or a hunch: “I bet people would buy this gizmo ….
• Or an observation: “There’s got to a better way ….

Ideas start out vague and raw, lack clarity and definition: Einstein’s quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge” holds very true at this point.

I content that no new idea ever starts out fully formed, not even in the imagination of the gifted innovator like Steve Jobs – they may start off very promising and exciting – or whimsical and so-so, but never are all the answers – or equally important are all the “ question’s” understood. The whole concept of a NPD process is to take these raw ideas and transform them into products that the market wants.

So why can’t we just simply pick the first good idea we come across and run it through the development process and launch it? Because most ideas simple aren’t winners!

There have been lots of studies that try to determine how many ideas it takes to get to a final winning product. The most often number quoted is 58 ideas for every winning product (Booze Allen & Hamilton). I have seen other numbers in the order of one in 3000 (Stevens and Burley), and PDMA sites a number one in 7. These numbers are all subjective in my mind; first problem is what do we mean by an idea?

• Is it that idea you have in the shower that you quickly forget as you step out of the shower?
• Is it the concepts you generate during an ideation session?
• Or is it a new product that you launch into the market?
Secondly what do we mean by a success?
• Must it have achieved the ROI projections you forecasted in the business case?
• Or at least make a reasonable profit?
• Or is it successful if it’s a means to an end? i.e. first generation of a technology that is projected to enable a future profitable business? Ever heard of Windows 2.0?
• Or a lost leader to get people to buy some other product or service in the future? Ever heard of YouTube?

Depending on your definitions and how formal your ideation process, I suspect the number is less than one in 3000 and probably more than 58. The point is: it requires some experimentation and vetting to discover and converge on the best opportunities with the best chance of being successful.

The ideation phase is all about coming up with ideas and thinking differently. We need to put our critical thinking aside and just let the ideas flow. We are simply exploring the old HP question “what if …” Ideation can be and should be a blast! Have fun being creative and learn to let your ideas flow and diverge. Later in the process we can start converging the ideas down into concepts, but for now your mission is to be an idea making machine.

Why is it that we can come up with so many great ideas in the shower? I suspect the reason the shower is a great idea generating place is that we are in an environment that is comfortable with no pressure on us to be right or wrong. Our thoughts are allowed to run freely and what great thoughts we have!

Unfortunately, ideas we come up with in the shower are extremely ephemeral in that they pretty much disappear from our heads as soon as we step out of the shower to face the day. We start being critical and quickly convince ourselves that the ideas can’t work. And other things get in our way – like taking care of the latest design crisis at work, and the mind purges that “next big thing” down the shower drain. No doubt most of these ideas aren’t winners – but maybe there is one in 3000 after all, and that “one” that is down the drain and nothing more than a distant memory – shucks!

While I don’t recommend you and your ideation team go to the locker rooms for a joint shower session (yikes! what a thought but your situation may be different?), I do recommend you create an environment where the ideation team can feel free to let the ideas flow. Away from distractions of day to day business including cell phones and twitters!

I do recommend you come up with a system to capture your ideas so you can revisit them later on after the session is done. You can write them on little sticky notes, or on poster boards or white boards. I like using sticky notes or paper sheets because later on in the process its easier to sort and combine common ideas into clusters as we start the convergence process.

We will talk about converging ideas in our next blog, but for now think differently (or is that different?), think freely and always enjoy creative times, in and out of the shower, it’s why we all choose to be in new product development after all.

Happy inventing!

Cheers!
Kevin

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