Over my career, I have been rewarded by many interesting conversations about innovation. These discussions have covered the full gamut of why, how, and what. I think, though, the most important question is who.
Why Do We Innovate?
The “why” of innovation is the easiest question of all. We need new products and services to compete in a global marketplace. Our customers demand new features and technologies. Manufacturing becomes more automated and offers new approaches to serving the needs of customers. Competition is accelerating.
We also pursue innovation because, as humans, we are curious. We want to find better ways to produce goods and services, and we want to improve the quality of the products we already offer. Curiosity and quality go hand-in-hand as we seek enhancements that will lower costs and increase benefits.
How Do We Innovate?
The question of how we innovate is a different discussion. Some people are deeply wedded to particular processes or frameworks. Especially for risk-averse organizations, the “how” of new product development (NPD) can become rigid and bureaucratic.
Innovation management suggests several frameworks. You can read about these in Chapter 3 of my book, The Innovation ANSWER Book (available at Amazon). Innovation approaches vary based on the complexity of a project, how much risk is acceptable from a technical standpoint, and the culture of the organization. Generally, we assess the innovation framework according to two variables: team structure throughout the project life cycle and the degree to which the scope of work is pre-planned.
Serial innovation uses different teams and team members for each stage of the work with distinct hand-offs between stages. Integrated teams maintain common membership (of at least a core group) throughout the project. Traditional waterfall processes use upfront planning while agile project management approaches assume an evolving scope of work.
What to innovate?
With appropriate customer feedback and market research, we know what products to design and develop. Market research should include prioritization of customer needs and benefit analysis of all features. Sometimes it is best to launch a brand-new, full-featured product for a target market segment. Other times, we choose to commercialize minimally viable products (MVP) and then release next generation products over a subsequent time frame.
Really the “who” of innovation is twofold. First, we have the “for whom do we innovate” and next, we have the “who does innovation”. Each portion of the “who” of innovation complements the other.
Innovation and new product development are only successful when we are able to match a clearly identified market need with a product technology. Customers must know that they have a problem and that the given product offers the best solution. They must exchange less money to purchase the product than they value that particular solution. That is, the benefit (gain) a customer perceives of a product must be greater than the cost (or pain) of acquiring it.
We must know our customers. We learn what they need, how they feel, and why they behave in certain ways through market research. Every stage or phase of an NPD process (waterfall, agile, or Wagile) must incorporate direct customer feedback. Consumers and end-users yield the interactions and utility that NPD teams build into product design.
Of course, that brings us to the second “who”. The NPD teams and innovation leaders of an organization are crucial to successful product and service development. Innovation teams must have autonomy to practice their trade skills and to make decisions (within appropriate guardrails) on technology, market, and features. In Wagile (read more here), we emphasize that leaders practice discipline and understand risks, while teams engage customers and act freely within their areas of expertise, responsibility, and authority.
Innovation is a dialogue – with your customers, with your teams, with the marketplace. All conversations involve the questions of why, how, what, and who. In NPD, the most important question is who. Always put your customer needs at the forefront and you will be successful with innovation.
Don’t Know How?
If you don’t know how to learn about customer needs or you don’t know how to approach a disruptive market transition (personal or professional), you need the Life Design Master Mind group. Join me on 11 November at 11:00 am CST (noon EST, 9:00 am PST) for a free Q&A webinar. The webinar is about one-hour and you’ll learn why Design Thinking is critical in the Innovation Conversation! Register here.
I am inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me joy to help you build innovation leaders. Teresa Jurgens-Kowal is an experienced innovation professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or area code 281 + phone 787-3979 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.