When Innovation is a Moving Target
When I was growing up in the UK of the 1970s, there was a TV game show called The Golden Shot. The final part involved a member of the audience guiding a blindfolded cameraman to line the crossbow sights up to the bullseye. “Left a bit, right a bit, up, down a bit – FIRE”. If they were lucky, the bolt would hit the middle of the target and they would win a prize.
Innovation should always have a target, with a specification or brief for whatever is being developed. There should be a clear alignment with strategy, consumer/user needs, technical capability and relative priority. The more detail the better (up to a point…) so there is little ambiguity on the key points of what is needed. It helps to avoid situations like “you said it would be blue, why is it red?”.
Having a shared view internally doesn’t necessarily mean the target is certain to be hit. Often our ability to hit an innovation target is compromised. Sometimes the target turns out to have been too ambitious. There is nothing wrong with ambitious targets; indeed, ground-breaking innovation rarely results from a cautious plan. But that’s the way it works sometimes with innovation. By definition it’s something new, and it’s not guaranteed to work.
The target may have been wrongly specified, perhaps through a misinterpretation of consumer data; we may have heard, but we didn’t listen. The end result is that we miss the target, either because we didn’t aim in the right place or we didn’t fire correctly.
But what if the target changes midway through a project? What do you do if a competitor launches a product that blows your objective out of the water? What if a new technology comes along that could dramatically improve your product performance? Innovation is often a moving target.
Of course at some point the product design must be locked. In many industries that is relatively early on in the programme. The formulation development of a new prescription medicine is pretty much finalised before the clinical trial programmes start. If anything goes wrong, it’s a real tough call to make changes and start again.
In contrast, companies developing software have the ability to make changes and release new versions almost overnight. This is where the concept of “permanent (or perpetual) beta” comes from, and it has even spread to sportswear. This is often as much about mindset as it is about the practical aspects of product development.
Software is also where the concept of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) arose, made famous in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup book. This uses real customers paying real money for real products that have been released as soon as possible. They are usually far from perfect but improve with each iteration. The continuing sequence of updates and occasionally, ‘pivots” not only bring in revenue but also – perhaps more importantly for the longer term – provide invaluable learning from which the next wave of innovation will benefit.
Missing a target doesn’t have to be a disaster. Wherever possible companies should be flexible about what they can launch. As Voltaire said “perfect is the enemy of good”. There are often possibilities to still launch successful innovation.
So what can you do if something changes?
- Try to retain as much flexibility to adapt as you can in the development brief and schedule.
- Revaluate the external situation, including competition and consumer, at key points in the project.
- If you find the target is missed, then either evaluate the potential of what you know you can how hit; or see if there is a different target.
- If your product is appropriate, consider the Permanent Beta option where there is a whole series of iterations in the pipeline, learning from real in-market experience.
And by the way, try to avoid blindfolded people in charge of a crossbow. Keep your eyes wide open at all times.
image credit: davidbarrie.com
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Kevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.
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