Warm and Fuzzy at the Front End of Innovation

Warm and fuzzy inside

Perhaps I have fallen into the very trap I have campaigned about in the past, in recognizing and resolving the disappointing results we achieve from all the work we put into the front end of innovation. The “warm and fuzzy” front end of innovation can make us all a little grumpy.

Let me explain. I recently wrote out a newsletter – termed a thought or two – to my innovation network. This network is split between the advisers and consultants delivering into clients and the clients themselves, that I have a connections into that have built over the years. These are mostly through knowing them, working with them, exchanging or simply connecting in LinkedIn. The subject was the changes occurring at the front end of innovation.

My argument was the results we have obtained from a disconnected set of front end activities was poorer than they should be, and this needs changing. I feel there is a real shift potential happening today through connecting technology and connected solutions to ‘transform’ this front end. My feeling is the front end is often “warm and fuzzy” and it needs to be radically redesigned. I wrote about “hearing all the voices of ideas at the front end and the “two distinct parts of the innovation funnel” building from my original post “the new extended innovation funnel“, written in 2011.

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The last five yards – the really hard part

Innovation Project ExecutionIt seems so simple doesn’t it – “bringing final ideas to market”. So easy to say, yet it does seem so very hard to achieve.

Everything we should be aiming towards boils down to the judgement of a ‘successful execution’ or not. It is this last, hard five yards of all the work that went into something, which can make or break so much of the efforts that have gone into this emerging ‘commercial life’ of our new innovation activities.

We should regard the back-end of innovation as the rugged part

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The rugged final frontier of innovation – Execution.

I always smile when people talk about the ‘fuzzy’ front end of innovation, ‘fuzzy’ tells a story. I think we should name the back end of innovation as ‘rugged’ to tell an equally important story. This is the end where the ‘last five yards’ separate the winners from the losers. The race before then has been made up of often huge quantities of stamina, fortitude, planning, exploration and getting into that necessary innovation rhythm to get yourself within sight of the finishing line, the point when the product, service or business model has one final gasp and passes over that internal finishing line.

The critical passing-through and launch phase where the finished concept goes through that clear defining moment, out into judgement day, where we enter that hostile environment, the market place, sometimes to loud cheers, sometimes to defining silence.

Welcome to the real world of judgement where those experienced enough in frontier-ship  knows the terrain they are passing over, certainly not for the first time and can manage this again to have a further final successful outcome- better sales!

Hitching your wagons and moving out for the first time.

Discovering any innovation is hard work. What we all want to do is provide something new, an advancement on something that is already there, or it is simply not really innovation. We search hard for making those breakthrough moments when you hit on that undiscovered ‘unmet need’ and the market place just loves it.

Getting to this point you need to recognise all the core needs of making this journey. You need plenty of innovation capabilities to overcome many hitches in the journey of market place acceptance. Here are four:

  • Innovation execution is not a smooth process, you often have no control over making your innovation activity a steady process, it is full of surprises. It is how you manage these will determine winners from losers.
  • Innovation is serendipitous, full of fortunate discoveries, often you stumble across something that takes it further forward. Often you cannot even replicate that moment. Other times it is simply elusive until by accident and through patience you get there. You resolve the obstacle, you overcome the objection, you move on.
  • Often innovation is often less than spectacular. You get to the moment of rolling drums and voila, whipping back the covers you cry “there you have it!” You offer something less than spectacular, it is so boringly such  a ‘duh’ moment, you are ready to crawl back under the rock.
  • Your innovation execution lacks momentum. Even with lots of initial enthusiasm and best intentions, suddenly all that necessary energy dissipates and falls away. What started as a bang ended with a whimper and a desperate need to finish this off and move onto the next thing.

Why is this?

What separates successful execution innovators from the rest of the pack?

Innovation needs to be a clear discipline; there really is no getting away from it. Innovation needs to be integrated from idea to execution, to full end market delivery. It often boils down to discrete and manageable tasks well managed, well orchestrated and planned, well supported with all the best resources available to make a success of innovations implementation.

Execution, that final all-important phase needs leadership. Leadership sets the tone and communication what is important and is always ready and able to help the implementation team succeed as best they can. These leaders need three traits- 1) a bias for action irrespective of the problem, 2) knowledge and contacts in the market place themselves to gauge quickly issues and roadblocks,3) they incentivise  the execution team for providing break through solutions and moving them forward quickly.

How many times though does leadership seem to slip away at the moment of execution? They feel the hard ‘yards’ have already been covered, the innovation is ready to go and they commit a series of execution sins.

They extract critical resources at the wrong time and work them back into the organization far too early. The research group have moved on, the product manager has been re-assigned, the research didn’t cover that last concept change to check its value in the market, the final packaging design was subjected to last minute economies and runs the risk of compromising the final delivery of the product. This sin list could run on and on, you know these as they constantly happen.

The leadership had the pedal pressed to the floor so hard to get the product ready for launch, they just took their foot of this pedal at the crucial moment and the product goes ‘sliding’ out the door and simply crashes into that first formidable barrier, customer rejection and you were not ready for it. So much becomes “at risk” if you have not given the right execution focus.

Leadership needs to be immersed in the deployment zone

Leadership needs to be as much in their ‘deployment zone’ as the team assigned the job. They set and live the expectations, they define the critical deliverables, establish accountability and resolve the conflicts quickly, they install metrics that are execution specific, they actively seek commitments from the team, share in achieving them from their customers and they share the good and bad parts of the progress back into the organization. They communicate accurately and frequently, keeping on top of issues, breaking down problems, reaching back into the organization for help when help is needed. They offer true leadership, from the front.

Execution through this commitment has become mission critical and all need to see this. It becomes, over time, the force for perpetual execution. Inertia is not spoken of-ever!

The sustaining execution machine

Four attributes that need constantly developing well at the execution stage

  • Agility – that ability to simply move quickly and be adaptable. To grasp the problem, to move on it and constantly explore all the different angles that will resolve the issue and keep execution plans on track.
  • Seek healthy debate – asking, probing, and showing a constant interest in what is going on, what resolved any issues, simply having that cultural bias of ‘qualified’ risk taking and openness, discussing and learning so you are building up always knowledge and experience.
  • Effective communication– ensuring there are the mechanisms in place to ‘flag’, to help, to reach out and ask for help. Use communication not to hide issues but to seek out from others ways to break down the barriers.
  • Provide appropriate resources – the need to provide the same energy and resource commitment, skills and experience that went into the discovery and development of innovation and ensuring equal ‘vested’ interest from all is there in achieving the concepts aims at the execution time; at the moment of customer experience. Gather the resources quickly, learn fast if it doesn’t and work to find solutions that can resolve it, so it does.

The five phases of execution adventure – just keep those wagons rolling!

The ‘innovation execution emotional wave’ makes it hard ground to travel.

I was reading recently about Gartner’s hype cycle, one article written by Graham Horton gave me a thought for this piece. The hype cycle was developed to visualise the media coverage of a new technology and it goes through five distinct phases.

Actually I really think one version of this applies, with adaptation (and due acknowledgement to them) for the ongoing journey we often face in execution of a product once it has entered the market place- that hostile terrain I spoke about. We go through a real ’emotional wave’ of innovation execution.

Innovation's execution emotional wave

  • Trigger:  in this case is our execution or launch. When the product is launched and comes up against customer comment, reaction and acceptance/ rejection
  • Inflated expectations: the over-enthusiasm and expectations of the innovation meet the reality of the market place.
  • Disillusionment: Either the innovation fails to make the changes it was expected so the company needs to begin a rapid re-think or the market response has been less than overwhelmed. Enthusiasm diminishes rapidly and action needs to be taken
  • Enlightenment: The innovation on hand begins to be understood, to be adopted, to be adapted and fits within the needs of the final consumer. Sometimes this comes from heavy advertising, repackaging, repositioning or simply listening to the issues and rapidly making the necessary adjustments to match needs
  • Productivity: The adjustments have been resolved, the peaks and troughs have been worked through, and it becomes appropriate to the customers’ needs. This might have needed second and third generation modification and upgrade but it does the job it was conceived to do.

Bringing the innovation execution wagon train home is hard.

I do think new products and services do go through this ‘emotional execution wave’. Execution is hard; it is not simply the ‘last five yards’ it goes well beyond the internal finishing line. Innovation does not stop when it goes out of the organizations doors, it actually only just begins, and it has to prove itself. To make innovation work, it is only when it is in the market place, judged by customers sufficiently enough to stump up their cash we have a successful innovation. To get there is often travelling over some rough, tough terrain and the more you are exposed, the more you learn. When you execute you need to deploy a significant skill set and dedicated resource to bring home the results.

Fuzzy front ends, huh! Markets have these tasty morsels for breakfast if they, firstly, have not listened to the market needs in the first place but more importantly, have not been executed correctly. The back end, execution, is certainly rugged terrain, that final frontier to travel that is for sure.

The new extended innovation funnel

The ideas funnel has been with us a long time. We put our ideas into the funnel and then through a process of elimination out ‘pop’s’ finished products. Henry Chesbrough’s famous depiction of the Open Funnel has continued that concept, that ideas enter the more ‘open’ innovation process and go through a more ‘staged gate’ or equivalent process to emerge as the finished product or even spun-out- all well and good.

In the past few weeks the funnel has been constantly coming back in my life. It has been bugging me. Recently I was at a European Innovation Conference and we got into a roundtable discussion on managing ideas and up pop’s the fuzzy front end and the funnel and putting ideas through this. To be provocative I said “well ideas are actually in the middle of the innovation process” and we got into a significant debate on this and concluded that we all did not share a common language on this or understanding of what I was struggling to articulate.

So let me lay out my view. Firstly this was not as inspired as an insight I can  fully lay claim too as mine. I had read somewhere this very point, ideas lie more in the middle of the innovation process but just could not remember where I had read it- grey cells are my excuse.

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