Michael Fruhling's Blog

A bunch of stuff about innovation…

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Bridging the Expectations Gap

Posted by mdf4u on April 26, 2010

Last week, I wondered aloud as to whether some consumer products companies engaged in open innovation may be practicing a form of “Not Invented Here” syndrome that I call “Not Found by Us”.  I suggested that even after excluding as (justifiably) unworthy the majority of external opportunities, those identified by the company itself fare considerably better than unsolicited external submissions in internal review processes.  

While I believe this may well be true, another explanation for the absence of unsolicited opportunities among commercialized products could be that it is virtually impossible for unsolicited external submissions to meet the collectively high standards required by most consumer products companies.   My sense is that there is a dramatic gap between the types of external opportunities that companies actively seek and develop and those that are proposed on an unsolicited basis. 

Companies are most interested in on-strategy, highly differentiated, commercially and economically viable, technically feasible and scalable opportunities.  How many of these options are being offered up on an unsolicited basis?  Very few, if any, I’d imagine.  I also suspect that many submissions are lucky if they meet more than one or two of these standards.  Yet, how many submitters are aware of these standards? Also very few, I’d imagine.  Many external submissions are relatively early stage, and as such, are far riskier, and therefore less attractive to companies than more finished propositions.  Opportunities proactively scouted by companies are more likely to meet more of their selection requirements than unsolicited ones.  Even if some may come up a bit short, there may still be sufficient internal “suction” (i.e. advocacy) for these options to treat these as manageable and surmountable deficiencies. 

If what I am saying is even mostly true, then I feel that companies would do the public a favor by being highly explicit about the necessary prerequisites for a credible candidacy.  They should also disclose the real (exceptionally low) chances of success for any submission that fails to meet these rigorous standards.  That way, an interested party can make an educated decision as to whether or not to invest the time in preparing a submission.  I expect that this will cause most to not pursue the opportunity.  Importantly, this disclosure will significantly decrease frustration and disappointment among unqualified would-be submitters.  Also important, it should help free up corporate resources to manage a few, highly credentialed candidates.

Even in instances where a submitted technology makes the so-called “first cut”, companies should continue to be extremely transparent and forthcoming about the overall process, milestones, investment decisions and standards in order to ensure informed decision making, including among individuals who may have unrealistic ambitions.   In my experience, prospects can be reluctant to ask such questions at risk of offending the company and in so doing, jeopardize their candidacy.  Companies, in turn, seem content to keep matters vague in order to avoid the risk of sending false impression as to interest and/or commitment.  In any relationship, open and candid communication is essential for the best shared outcomes.  It certainly should apply to this area.

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The Power of Prototypes: Making It Real

Posted by mdf4u on January 13, 2010

If “a picture is worth a 1,000 words”, then a functioning, physical product prototype can be worth a million of them.  In my experience, there are few things that can jumpstart a new product initiative within an organization better than a working prototype. 

If you’re seeking to cultivate advocates within your organization, or seeking to enlist external resources to further a new initiatives, then a physical representation of the end product can be an excellent way to go.

Rick Ruffolo (now Senior Vice President of Brand, Marketing and Innovation at Yankee Candle Company), one of my colleagues at Bath and Body Works, has always been very effective at successfully generating interest and building consensus around new opportunities by quickly reducing his business building ideas to physical prototypes and showcasing these with peers and management. 

My company (bfs innovations) is currently representing the developer of a patented wash cloth.  This special cloth has a usage indicator that works like this: it has colorful images printed on it that can be transformed to display another image after the cloth has been washed/scrubbed by its user.  This innovation will allow (for instance) a young user to understand the concept of washing themselves to go from dirty-to-clean in a fun and visually interesting way.  Interest in this innovation has increased dramatically now that we’ve been able to demonstrate technical feasibility and have a compelling, physical prototypes to share.  Welcome, but not surprisingly, companies that had previously rejected the concept in the absence of a prototype have returned to the table to discuss it with us, and with a markedly higher level of enthusiasm for it.
It can be magical when people within an organization can come together behind a shared vision for a new opportunity.   That said, just as a well-executed prototype can motivate a group to action, a lousy prototype execution can kill just as easily.   With this in mind, one should move swiftly to prototype, but with a certain amount of care to ensure that a poor representation doesn’t turn off potential proponents. 
To be clear, I wish to distinguish between prototypes that offer technical proof of concept and those that may serve as product representations.   This distinction is important.  The former may not need to be “pretty”.  It may just need to demonstrate feasbility.  The latter may need to do double duty. 
Physical product prototypes can make a new initiative seem real in the eyes of the viewing audience, and therefore make them more inclined to support it.   Are you making proper use of product prototypes in your innovation endeavors?   

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Escape From The Island of Unmet Expectations

Posted by mdf4u on January 8, 2010

This post is universally relevant, but is primarily directed to my friends in the retail business, as the concept discussed will likely resonate most strongly with them.

An interesting phenomena can occur in the retail world…based on judgment, market benchmarking and possibly some testing, management has high hopes for a new product line.  It sets high expectations, prioritizes company resources accordingly, sets budget numbers high, and orders big…and the product line underperforms.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the line sucks wind.  Under some objective measures, it might even be considered successful.  Just that it doesn’t perform as planned.  For example, a $75MM line for a company that was expecting $150MM is a dismal failure.  On the other hand, $75MM can be pretty darn impressive if you’re used to staring at $30MM lines! 

Lines that underperform are usually sent to the retail gulag.  That is, it drops in sales priority, items start getting discounted, and a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure results as sales continue to decline and retail space dwindles.  

So, what’s my point?  First, there are a lot of  fully developed product lines that have underperformed and which were sent to the retail gulag.  I’m betting that a good number of these could potentially be resurfaced, repositioned and/or repackaged and/or “sold” to another party in a different trade channel, or geography…especially if there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the offering.  

Is anyone brave enough to consider this option?

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Plan for Success in External Innovation

Posted by mdf4u on January 6, 2010

Among companies contemplating external innovation, I would offer the following unsolicited but simple advice:

If your company struggles with decision making involving products and technologies that are grown organically within its own four walls, it should expect to have even greater difficulty in successfully implementing an external innovation strategy.

A number of the companies I’ve worked with have shared with me their frustrations with corporate decision making.  Whether this involves R&D waiting for direction from marketing on what it wants to put on the product launch calendar so that it can interpret these needs into technical development criteria, deciding what and how much information is necessary to advance an initiative to the next stage in a stage gate process, or gaining internal alignment on the consumer test action standards necessary to pull the trigger on a product launch, companies can be flush with opportunities for internal gridlock. 

In the context of an external innovation collaboration add the further complexity of seeking to coordinate the activities of two companies (a technology provider and a technology seeker) that don’t necessarily know each other well, or trust each other, or have similar product development approaches and/or philosophies, and things can get even dicier.

The smart companies understand this implicitly.  One of my colleagues at a larger consumer products companies shared with me an insightful observation.  We were discussing success factors for external innovation within companies.  Paraphrasing, she said, “It’s important to remember that there are always 3 conversations going on:  the one between the people at your company, the one between the people at your partner’s company, and the one between you and your partner”.  

I’m not suggesting that companies seeking to pursue external innovation initiatives should have low success expectations.  However, success probability will be significantly enhanced by careful preparation.   Said differently, successful companies prepare for success.  With this in mind, companies should objectively acknowledge their process and cultural strengths and actively address existing weaknesses before they open the door for business in external innovations.

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