Ever been tempted to send out a meeting invite to get your team together for a new product brainstorming session?
I’ll admit it. I have…
Next time you feel that urge, stop, put down the invitation and step away from your laptop. New Product Brainstorming should never be your first step.
At first glance, it seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? Bring a bunch of smart people together to generate new product ideas to fill the front end of your innovation pipeline. Then you have them put some prototypes together and go looking for product-market fit. Which begs the question – why do so many new products underperform their revenue forecasts?
The Problem is Not the Lack of Your Solution
Here’s the problem with new product brainstorming. It invites circular logic and most of the ideas that survive brainstorming will be solutions in search of a problem. The problem is that they don’t have (fill in your solution…)
That’s especially true in a technical organization full of people that love problem-solving. Instead of starting from the problem, people start from what they know. Hammer, meet Nail. Even though a screw, an adhesive, or velcro might do the job better.
If we make widgets, the solution that survives brainstorming is always some kind of widget. Then we take prototypes out and look for someone to tell us that it would be great with only this or that tweak. Why are still surprised when most new products miss their revenue forecasts? The whole approach is upside down and inside out.
Moving to a Market-Driven or Outside-In Process
So how can you replace new product brainstorming with an outside-in or market-driven process? The first step is to identify the areas where you want to start digging – the big macro trends that could be causing trouble for many customers.
For example, the difficulty finding experienced talent is limiting manufacturers’ ability to produce enough products to meet demand. That is a macro trend that is costing them real money. A migraine that they would be willing to pay someone to solve. Maybe via automation. Or maybe via some route you haven’t yet conceived.
But make sure that these are real and lasting problems you are trying to solve. Or at least long-lasting enough to launch the solution and generate a return. Our recency bias fools us into thinking that trends will go on forever. That today’s problems will exist from here on. But I’ve seen many cycles of new product investments based on crazy high energy prices that everyone was sure were the new normal. Then when energy prices fell again, interest in those new products evaporated.
Get Outside & Go to the Gemba
The second step is getting commercial and technical folks into the field. Relying on new product brainstorming is a bad idea because finding unmet needs is not something you can do sitting around a table inside your headquarters building or comfy home office. It’s also not something you can do by simply talking to your customer service folks, your salespeople, or your favorite distributors. They can be useful sources of anecdotal information. But you have to go to the Gemba. The place where the work is done and where the problems live.
And remember that the Gemba includes more than the end user. Everyone in the value chain can have problems with the current solution set. Specifiers, buyers, shippers, installers, end users, and even aftermarket service and support can have problems you might be able to address.
What to Look & Listen for
Lastly, you have to train people on what to look for and how to conduct field interviews. The most common mistake interviewers make is starting by asking people what they want or what they need instead of focusing on the problems in their way. Asking people about those macro trends and their biggest challenges is a much better way to warm things up. But dig deeper. Way deeper. What parts of the customer’s operation are inconvenient, time-consuming, costly, inefficient, dangerous, dirty, messy, frustrating, infuriating, embarrassing, or otherwise holding them back from achieving their goals or desires?
And if you can, observe their workplace. Their Gemba. Because seeing their problems in action and understanding how that impacts their economics is an essential part of coming up with real aha moments about how you might be able to help.
Empathetic listening is an essential skill here. You can’t learn anything when you are the one talking. But don’t be so empathetic that you switch to problem-solving or selling mode. That automatically shuts down the flow of information. Especially, financial information. That can be hard if you have a salesperson or distributor with you. So, I don’t recommend it.
And before any visit, read a reminder like this one aloud for the entire interview team:
We are not here to sell anything or to solve any problems today. We are only here to ask questions and observe to uncover problems and pains. Solving and selling comes in a later visit.
So the next time you think about scheduling time for new product brainstorming, don’t. Instead, make a few calls and get some field visits on your team’s calendar.
PS – Are you finding it difficult to manage this kind of information across multiple market segments, business units, or regions/ Maybe it’s time for a demo of AcceleTrak. Software that gives B2B new product teams real-time visibility into the risks and rewards in their pipeline. All without the hassle of spreadsheets and docs so they can focus on what really matters – delivering their new product revenue numbers.