Launch and Beyond

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Does your organization have a formal launch process to manage new product introductions? Are post mortems conducted on a regular basis to ensure goals are met? Are there even measurable goals beyond unit volume targets? Do you monitor market feedback to ensure momentum is not lost?

Too often firms lack a structured product introduction process. Lack of process results in poor communication and lack of a unified message to the market. Worst-case, the wrong consumers are targeted resulting in wasted resources and failure to meet goals. Typically the lack of a launch process also uncovers lack of metrics and a formalized post-launch review process. Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Sure, this is a cliché, but it is extremely important. You must have clear key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with overall goals and objectives for the new product.

The benefit of the process is getting all the appropriate teams in one room on a regular basis. It is critical that the sales and marketing teams understand the background of development, who the target customers are, which competitors they need to focus on, and the overarching strategy. Product managers need to develop clear strategies and communicate these appropriately. Sales and marketing teams need to focus on how they will achieve the over-arching strategy through frontline tactics.

Product managers need to lead the process through launch and monitor the product as it lives within the market. Too often firms launch a product and ignore it, thinking the sales team can manage it alone. The whole point of the process is that dirty four-letter word, TEAM. Everyone needs to continually work together to ensure long-term success with ongoing sales momentum. Ongoing communication, analysis, and adjustments are critical to win.

Product Innovators – Time to Skill Up

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Those of us lucky enough to work within product development, need to continually search for new ways to improve our existing products or develop new products. To be effective at our jobs, it requires a diverse set of skills and behaviors. Most importantly is an ongoing drive to understand the customer and solve existing and future problems. All of us need a deep toolkit of various skills to succeed.

If you are just doing what your organization has always done, you are not going to win. Too often I meet product professionals who lack the desire or initiative to self-improve. As we spend so much mental and physical energy to ensure our products become what we hope they become, it is crazy to “sit on your laurels” and be satisfied with your current knowledge and skills. Ongoing self-development and practice are critical to achieve what you want.

Professional athletes, musicians, writers, painters, car racers, and a host of others spend countless hours practicing and improving their skills to gain advantage over competitors. Why is it that most business professionals never do the same? Too often, we are trapped in jobs we are not motivated with anymore or overwhelmed with life’s requirements. Well, too bad. If you do not like your current situation, want a better job, want more money, want a nicer car, want to live in the country, doing what you are doing now will not cut it. You must become the best product professional you can be. We owe it to ourselves, our customers, and our companies. What does it take?

Firstly, read and read and read. Stop staring at your phone and pick up a book. Next, get off the couch and get some new experiences under your belt. Hang out with different people, go to a weird play, visit a strange city, volunteer with the homeless. Whatever you do, expand your perspectives. Also, attend workshops and conferences both within and outside your industry. Listening to other professionals will provide inspiration and spark the creative juices. Most importantly, build the key skills a product innovator needs.

Learn basic research skills to get to know your customers and competitors in more detail. Improve your presentation and storytelling abilities. Work on your speaking skills. Most importantly, become a great salesperson. We have to continually sell our ideas, findings, and recommendations to a host of stakeholders so we better be good at sales. If you are not polished, no one will listen. The more you know, the more you share and help others, the more people will listen and trust you, and provide you with more freedom to develop great things. Oh yeah, one more thing, read!

Find Problems with Research

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The first step in most innovation projects is identifying a problem. The problem is usually market driven or technology driven. Once the problem is identified, the innovator needs to learn as much as possible of what caused the problem, who is influenced by it, how competitors have addressed the problem, etc. A critical step in this discovery stage is the use of research.

Research is composed of two key areas, qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative is descriptive and is gathered by observation. Quantitative deals with numbers and data that can be measured. Combining both is referred to as mixed-methods. Often innovators use qualitative first, get a good general understanding, and then perform quantitative research. Both types of data gathering are composed of open-ended and closed-ended questions.

Researchers develop two types of questions, open-ended and closed-ended. Open-ended questions require more than one word answers and typically require expanded explanation. Closed-ended questions are usually answered with either yes or no. Both need to be used to uncover insights on the problem. Innovators need to perform research first-hand.

Can’t my corporate research team do this for me? Why do I need to learn this and do all this extra work? Great question!

To truly innovate you need to clearly understand all aspects of the problem, most importantly how the customer is impacted by the product, problem, or other influencers. Toyota uses the term genchi genbutsu, meaning to go to the spot or source. To develop a solution, and then push your project and recommendations forward you need to be an expert on the issue. The only way to do this is to understand the entire environment. Analyzing the competition, customers, technology, regulations, and all other potential factors that affect the problem is critical to develop a solution to the problem. Innovation requires data from qualitative and quantitative research, along with a deep analysis and synthesis of the problem. As Thomas Edison noted, “innovation is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. No one said this was easy.

A3 Storytelling

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Visual communication is an excellent way to share information with team members. Developed by Toyota as a methodical approach to problem solving, A3s create a rigorous and systematic way of thinking, allowing a deeper understanding of problems or opportunities. The name “A3” signifies the size of the paper (in Japan) the report is developed on, closely related to the U.S. 11”x17” sheets. This methodology forces individuals to effectively condense large amounts of data into an easy-to-read and understand format (no one has time to read reams of data). There are many types of A3 reports

The original purpose of the A3 was to clearly explain a problem, its elements, and solution(s). The A3 also is used for proposals and project status updates. It can be used for any type of report. The great thing about developing A3s is it forces the author to be concise and improve skills to communicate simply, though supported by sophisticated thinking. Allowing for a systematic, repeatable process, A3s have many benefits.

A3s provide many benefits to organizations. The tool provides a methodical approach to problem solving, resulting in a succinct format for presenting or reporting facts. In addition, the ongoing use of A3s allows for a document trail that others can follow and use to understand the problem solver’s actions and results (remember, knowledge management is a good thing). Offering a common language and methodology, the A3 methodology develops a shared culture conducive to Lean and Kaizen concepts. Finally, and most importantly the tool provides a foundation and lays the groundwork for future change. Visual management is a key component of an efficient organization.

Visual management is an excellent way to communicate by using visuals instead of text or other written instructions. The goal of an A3 is to use visuals (e.g., graphs, charts, pictures) as much as possible, with the least amount of text. This technique allows for quick and easy understanding, increased efficiency and clarity, and an excellent method to present a clear story. With a beginning, middle, and end, A3s cover a complex topic simply and clearly.

The use of A3s creates efficiency and builds key skills in problem solving, storytelling, and clear communication across the organization. A3s can be used for many processes, not just problem solving. As a great visual communication tool creating structured thinking, clear concise communication, systems thinking, continuous learning, process and results, objectivity and openness, teams should investigate the use of A3s and how it can benefit the organization with a repeatable, systematic method of learning and communicating. Synthesizing, distilling, and visualizing a large amount of data into one page of mostly visual elements provides an excellent way to improve creative thinking resulting in overall firm agility.

A Better Brainstorm

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It’s time to move beyond brainstorms. Too often brainstorming sessions are extremely broad and can result in status quo thinking. The results from the majority of brainstorming sessions usually do not result in positive outcomes. New methods of brainstorming can develop innovative ideas.

Brainstorming was developed by Osbourne in 1939 to improve group creativity. Brainstorming is built around several key rules such as withholding judgment, encourage wild ideas, quantity counts, and every idea has equal worth. Unfortunately, the practice typically results in wasted time and not reaching goals. Brainstorming’s unstructured format typically results in poor productivity and subpar results. Also, lack of criticism can develop less-than-ideal ideas.

Structured brainstorming can result in improved innovative ideas. Developing a structured process that ensures key questions are formulated to guide group ideation is more effective than traditional brainstorm techniques. Also, ensuring the proper participants are included who can provide original insights can greatly benefit the outcome. It is important to make sure everyone is engaged and participate. Also, the final list of ideas needs to be narrowed appropriately to ensure immediate action. deBono’s Six Thinking Hats is a great tool for effective and efficient group ideation.

The majority of research shows that individual ideation is more effective than group ideation. Once a narrow set of potential ideas are developed (individually), using a group setting to determine the optimal direction is needed to ensure diverse perspectives are part of the decision-making process. Using deBono’s Six Thinking Hats creates highly structured brainstorming and review sessions.

Most of us spend too much time in unstructured meetings that waste organizational resources. It is essential to use tools and techniques that result in obtaining highly effective outcomes in the least amount of time. Stop using free-flow brainstorms and learn to adopt systematic innovation techniques for ongoing competitive advantage development.

What it takes to build an innovative culture

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Innovation is an ongoing buzzword. Leaders expect it, employees strive to develop it, but too often the quest for innovation results in wasted effort and resources. Why? There are too many reasons to explain in one post, but some of the key issues are lack of senior management support, lack of skills & ongoing practice, and lack of incentives. Yes, a lot of LACKS.

Strong senior management support is necessary to champion innovation projects. Providing emotional and resource support ensures employees understand the importance of the change in culture. Furthermore, leadership can accelerate the learning curve and implementation through mentoring and reducing barriers to innovation. It must start at the top to change a culture. Training is another key area to develop innovation.
Employees need to have the proper skills to create and innovate. Ongoing training is critical to learn basic problem solving and critical thinking skills. Developing strong habits through questioning, experimentation, and associating is critical for long-term benefits. Practicing skills helps to form long-term habits.

Continuous practice is required to ensure employees use the skills daily. Daily practice increases confidence and develops increasingly sharp observation and questioning skills. As employees improve innovative skills the ability to implement them to improve the business increases. A reward system is also critical to drive ongoing innovation work.

Finally, a rewards system is needed to drive incentives and maintain desire to push forward during adverse times. Rewards depend on the culture, but it does not have to only include money. Trips, training, and gifts are just some of the ways to reward staff. Often, the best method is simply recognition among peers. Rewards do not have to require a lot of resources.

Innovation is critical for long-term organizational sustainability. Without the proper foundation, innovation will remain a fleeting aspect of corporate life. Developing systematic innovation to reinvigorate a corporate culture is an excellent way to create products, develop motivated employees, and attract lifetime loyalty from consumers.