Managing Innovation

Two weeks back, I was interviewed by some market researchers on the topic of managing innovation and bringing products to market. The discussion revolved around project selection, prediction of success, measurement of success and accuracy of predictions thereof. It was a timely conversation as right now I am in the process of working through where to divest and invest in my portfolio for 2010 and it got me thinking about the mental and business processes employed in bringing products to market and subsequently managing products through their lifecycle.

Conception of a product begins in many ways, from a conversation which ends with  “Think you can make a business out of providing this capability” to a spark of inspiration in the shower (at a Holiday Inn if the adverts are to be believed), based on something just read, or some discussion with a customer and recognition of a need. Once the idea takes hold, you find yourself in the process of fleshing out and trying to assess if this “puppy can really hunt”. Market opportunity, market access, product capability, ecosystem strategy all begin to coalensce, and of these nothing irritates me more than market opportunity assessment, because all markets are at least a billion dollars in size and the art of market sizing is anything but precise. But we live in a world of approximations and perceptions (is that chair really green?) and so you soilder on, documenting your assumptions, clearly defining your variables and gaining some confidence in your models. I am a big fan of market segmentation and calculating business cases from the bottom up, how many potential customers in the target segment, how many can I reach, what percentage penetration can thus be assumed, and what growth rate should I apply (better be at least as fast as the market, preferably faster, back to those market opportunity sizings). You also at this point depending on context decide on whether you build everything you need or whether you will acquire capability to form the nucleus of your offering or extend a nucleus you already have. Once you think you have enough its time for the roadshow and convincing everyone else who matters that this is a good idea, you run the gauntlet, submit your idols to trial by fire and assuming they stand up to the test you get approval to go “make it happen”.

At this point you move into delivery execution mode, and working with all relevant disciplines; development, sales, marketing, services, support, business development etc You set the stage to bring your offering to market. It is always instructive around this time to look back at the vision that blossomed in the shower and compare that rose-tinted view with what you are actually delivering now that the realities and pragmatics of the real world have imposed their view. Generally, you want to feel that what you have is a fair approximation of what you wanted, and that you have got enough to stake your claim. Armed with that feeling its “Lights, Cameras, Action”. Marketing launch, press interviews, analyst discussions, and if the buzz is just right the heady euphoria that its happening, your out there, your good to go.

Next phase begins with a focus on traction in the market, am I selling? Are customers adopting? Revenue anyone? And how is the product matching up to the projections I showed those who had to approve. Its a time for great flexibility, who said “In war no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy”? You always learn something, the zingers out of left field wing their way in, and you focus on the basic blocking and tackling required to establish a beach head with your latest addition to the family. Before long the results start rolling in, you have real-world data, you can make even better informed decisions, and you begin to shape your next phase (which you probably already had a good idea of where you wanted to go, ideas which being in market get validated or not), and you roll up your sleeves to start it all again.

Whether it be introducing or enhancing capability in an existing product line or introducing a brand new line, the process cycles through again and again, you immerse yourself in your market, in your customers served, and you marshall innovations, be they technological or business oriented (new licensing models, different packaging schemes),to deliver value, because in the final analysis your product line will live or die by the value it is seen to provide. Much like a soap opera, I find managing innovation into market to be  fraught with plot twists and turns, cliff hangers abound, and you taste the sweet triumphs of victory and the agonies of defeat. Its heady stuff, puts hair on a Man’s chest or gray in your hair, but then again isn’t that life as we know it?


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