When I tell people that I work in innovation management, I am often asked what product I make. Of course, with my hobbies, I make lots and lots of scrapbooks and greeting cards. But, in my business serve my clients more than I create products. I want to create knowledge and skills for individuals and businesses to take their innovation programs to the next level. Innovation management is more about learning a continuous improvement process than it is about making “things”.
One of the most rewarding features of my job is to watch an individual or a company develop their own mastery of innovation. There are five critical skills that innovation managers and new product development (NPD) practitioners need to be effective and to build sustaining innovation programs.
#1-Know the Fundamentals
In sports, music, or theater, participants practice drills on the fundamentals. Quarterbacks catch the ball from the center and pass it, over and over again during the week and during the off-season. Pianists play scales, repeatedly, to provide nimble fingers and practice for a concert in B-flat or F-major. In theater, voice coaches train actors and actresses in delivery as they practice raising and lowering their pitch to build suspense for the performance.
NPD practitioners also need to practice the fundamentals. Too often, we assume we know what customers want since we assume the project goal is to add features and functionality to the product. Assumptions are performing, without the practice, and that can be a disaster!
Instead, innovation managers need to ensure that the NPD effort is based n fundamental customer needs. NPD teams must understand the basic challenge or problem that a customer is trying to solve. Those customer expectations are matched, one-to-one, with NPD project goals in successful innovation.
For example, a friend of mine had five dogs. She would launder their blankets and bedding, then undergo a cleaning process for her washing machine. A purely product-centric view of her challenge would be to make the bleach bottle easier to pour. Yet, digging into the core need, new products have been released to clean and disinfect the washing machine by running a normal load. Successful NPD teams focus on the core customer need and seek fundamental understanding.
#2 – Identify and Manage Barriers to Innovation
Innovation introduces change. That’s why it is such a fun field in which to work. Yet, change presents a tug-of-war for most people. We are excited to try something new while at the same time, we are unsure if the risk is worth it. Resistance to change is one barrier to innovation.
During conversations with existing and potential customer, innovation teams will identify any barriers or constraints to new product development. I recommend creating a handful of personas, or generic customer profiles to help envision the barriers to innovation. In this way, the NPD team can “query” the persona during product design and development to validate concepts, features, and functionalities.
For example, one persona may be a family with a lot of pets, like my friend. Another persona may be a family with kids that play sports and have very dirty clothes needing daily laundering. And yet another persona may be a single person living in an apartment who rarely needs to do laundry. The NPD team uses these personas to understand resistance or constraints in the product design, since the challenges of each are unique.
#3 – Plan, Execute, and Be Flexible
There has been a ton of debate in recent years about the best project management methodology for innovation efforts. Phased and gated processes rose in glory to be dissed by proponents of agile. Many companies then jumped onto the agile bandwagon to find products still failing in the marketplace.
What’s most important in successful innovation is to plan your work (including customer observation, testing, and validation), execute to the plan, and be flexible (be agile) as needed. NPD managers and CIOs (Chief Innovation Officers) should be trained as exceptional leaders first, and then, in the particular NPD processes for project management.
Successful leaders often have coaches or master mind groups to share ideas and to learn best practices. Transformational leaders understand the importance of customer inputs and balance these needs with operational demands in manufacturing and distribution. Innovation leaders are flexible and adapt to each situation to continuously develop team members and to improve the innovation management process itself.
#4 – Collaborate with Everybody
Another aspect of successful innovation is learning how to collaborate effectively. Collaboration is not a one-way customer interview or survey, and it is not assigning and directing tasks to NPD team members. Instead, collaboration builds on the skills and needs of everyone involved in the project, both internally and externally.
Employees working in NPD are often motivated by learning. This desire to learn can be capitalized by linking NPD team members with target customers to develop a customer journey map and to gain specific market feedback. Technical folks learn and develop collaboration skills working directly with customers. Likewise, sales and marketing personnel grow in knowledge by collaborating with technical designers to groom features and attributes for a new product.
And, we don’t want to leave out the customer as a resource. Customer collaboration means observing, questioning, and testing. You may meet the customer in the environment where s/he is using the product or service, or you may invite the customer to your facility. What’s crucial for innovation success is a long-term, interactive relationship with both external and internal customers.
#5 – Evaluate and Measure Success
In peer coaching, I am constantly reminded that success has not a singular definition. One person views success as a launching a new business, while another views success as selling their enterprise.
Each innovation project has a set of measures that define success. The metrics ought to be aligned with the organization’s mission, vision, and values. And the success metrics must be agreed by the NPD team upfront.
For instance, one NPD project used sales volume and market penetration as measures of success. Sales volume is a readily acquired number – how many units were sold? Digging deeper you can also gain additional insight into the value of the new product by calculating the ratio of manufactured items and sales price (profit margin).
Market penetration gave the NPD team another measure of success with their target customers and a measure to compare against competition. Market penetration provides the percentage of branded products sold versus the entire set of products and product solutions available. “We sold 63% of single use washing machine packs; our nearest competitor controls 20% of the market.”
If innovation success metrics don’t align with the project plans and goals, it’s time to make a change, including further conversations and collaborations with customers.
Necessary Skills for Innovators
Improved speed-to-market and increased return on investment (ROI) depend on the successful initiation and execution of NPD projects. Successful innovation managers practice, refine, and excel with all five key skills. The first of these competencies is maintaining customer contact to gain insights regarding market challenges and problems. This is a foundational innovation skill.
Next, innovators and NPD teams must identify constraints and barriers to developing products and services that delight the customers. These barriers may be internal processes or a customer’s willingness to invest in a new product solution. This leads to the innovation skill set of planning, implementing, and adapting. No project management system is perfect and successful innovators are flexible in how a project meets its goals to deliver exceptional products to a target market.
Fourth, collaboration is a skill that successful NPD managers use in developing their teams, the new product, and customer relationships. Collaboration requires an open line of communication, empathy, and favors doing something rather than talking about it.
And, finally, innovation success is measures to verify value delivery and to learn. Metrics for each project are different, but are always objective, leading to more effective decisions.
There are two ways to learn more about leadership skills for innovation. First, New Product Development Professional (NPDP) certification addresses best practices in innovation from devising a business strategy to idea generation and to market research for product concept testing. Second, CIOs, NPD leaders, and R&D managers who are committed to taking their innovation program to the next level must participate in the Innovation Master Mind (IMM). IMM is a 6-month peer coaching group that allows you to extend your NPD knowledge beyond NPDP certification and to collaborate with other CIOs and innovation managers. You will realize improved efficiency and growth from our Life Design Master Mind (LDMM), IMM, or through NPDP certification which entails a deep dive into strategy and NPD processes, including design thinking. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
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