Traditionally, new product development has been a linear process. The "new product" team creates many alternative versions of the core idea, winnows them down in various stages of testing and re-development until a winner emerges and gets launched.
And then expect 4 out of 5 to fail.
Things are changing. Great ideas are not only coming top-down; they're coming from interns, they're coming from customers sharing their best ideas out of love for your brand (like Dell Idea Storm), from ethnography in third world countries. Innovation is about inspiration coming from continuously listening for the unexpected which can come at anytime from anywhere; nothing linear about that!
The CTO of Hulu (formerly from Microsoft) said in April at Ad:Tech in San Francisco, "90% of what we learn comes AFTER we launch a new product."
At the recent ARF conference, Procter and Nielsen Online told us how listening to the blogosphere gave them totally new insights (vs. surveys) into the relationship between resurgence in cloth diapering and re-emerging values in American society.
I asked the head of research for a major media company what a bad idea looks like in a continuous and circular innovation process. He said, "It's not about a score. It's based on whether or not the premise proves faulty, or impractical as a business."
3M told a great innovation story at the ARF annual conference about a new product that started with a complaint call into customer care. The representative did his own research online, came up with a solution, filmed a video that he put on YouTube and re-contacted the customer to see if that is what he was looking for. 3M reaps the rewards of creating a culture where innovation can come from anyone and anywhere and giving employees a little breathing room to explore.
Think broadly, because innovation might come as a media, servicing or engagement concept and not a product. For example, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, Beinggirl, and the Obama campaign are examples of amazing innovation without creating new products in search of high uniqueness scores.
If consumers are in control, then re-center your thinking on how people live their lives and what THEY want to talk about. Respond favorably when your research and insights team asks for resources to broaden beyond surveys to mine social media, search terms, retail, digital behaviors, and customer care. Don't pigeonhole innovation to a team or a project; commit your company to a culture of listening for the unexpected.
Listing Photo Credit: Darren Hester 
Read more of Joel Rubinson's Brave New Marketing blog 
Joel Rubinson is Chief Research Officer at The ARF , where he directs the organization's priorities and initiatives on behalf of 400+ advertisers, advertising agencies, associations, research firms, and media companies. Joel is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and an active blogger. He holds an MBA in statistics and economics from the University of Chicago and a BS from NYU and never leaves home without his harmonica. Follow him on Twitter: @joelrubinson .