Your company may already have more ideas than it knows what to do with, but the critical question really is, “How good are these ideas?” and maybe even more to the point, “How can you evolve these good ideas (assuming you even know which ideas are the good ones) into great ideas?”
What follows are four categories of approaches, thinking strategies, and research methodologies that my company uses to generate and evolve nascent ideas into great new products, services, and businesses that have a greater chance of succeeding in the marketplace. Think of these approaches and strategies as knowing how and where to fish for new ideas.
My partner Gary Fraser and I believe strongly that innovation begins and ends with the consumer. So working to find consumer (or customer) insights to both inspire new innovations and further develop and refine ideas we already have is key. We use seven consumer insight approaches:
- Conventional focus groups: Conducting research in a focus group facility with a variety of target market consumers, including placing samples of new products in the consumers’ homes before they arrive at the focus group session
- Ethnographic approaches: Conducting interviews in the home or in places where a consumer would actually use the potential new product; for example, talking with men about a new car wax as they wash and wax their car in their driveway
- Online focus groups: Using online video technology to interact with consumers (usually three simultaneously) no matter where they live.
- Shopper intercepts/shop-alongs: Interviewing and accompanying shoppers to specific retail outlets as they shop in that store’s depart- ments and aisles
- Quantitative research: Using the results of large market studies with hundreds or even thousands of consumers to help identify unmet needs and opportunities for new products in a particular product category; often reserved for assessing the market potential of well-developed concepts
- Supplier’s consumer panels: Sometimes used by fragrance houses and other ingredient suppliers that are willing to do consumer research, free of charge, in the hopes of helping to create a market for a new ingredient
- Customer service call centers: Mining the data from a company’s call center, which can lead to product improvement ideas, as well as entirely new lines of products
All of these research methodologies enable us and our clients to uncover new insights and ideas we would be unlikely to discover any other way, including discerning good ideas from not-so-good ideas. Good ideas can become great ideas by refining and tweaking the elements of the new product mix until there is an integrated and winning new product proposition.
Making companywide suggestion box programs work is often a challenge because they require a tremendous commitment in company time and resources. However, there are easier, quicker, and more cost-effective ways to creatively involve employees in the innovation process. In addition to the whiteboard technique, we have seen three other approaches work well:
- Invention, problem-solving, and naming competitions
- R&D innovation fairs
- Employees as research subjects
To get a quick and cost-effective read on new product concepts, we often do taste tests with employees and their families. One of our client’s suppliers once helped us out by taste-testing several of our new product concepts at their annual company picnic.
We’ve also seen invention, problem-solving, and naming competitions work. Unlike a general suggestion box, they are a creative challenge with specific creative parameters and goals, with defined start and end dates.
An R&D innovation fair is a fun and effective way to highlight some of the further out, even potentially less practical ideas that R&D might be working on.
Typically R&D will set up a conference room at corporate headquarters and fill it with their new product ideas and concepts. Company employees are invited to tour the new product exhibits, fill out evaluation forms, and even make suggestions for improvement. Often the R&D prototypes spark interesting questions, insights, product names, and other idea builds that can add energy and excitement to the prototype concepts. It’s a wonderful way for non-R&D employees to be a part of the idea creation and process, while providing R&D with valuable consumer input at no charge to the company.
A number of firms have emerged that act as an innovation and problem-solving conduit between internal R&D departments and outside inventors and technical specialists. Procter & Gamble, for which we have done a number of new product development projects, has been a pioneer in using these firms to help leverage technical specialists, many from academic research labs, to solve seemingly intractable technical challenges quickly and cost-effectively.
Crowdsourcing services and contests have also been used to create 30-second commercials, name new products, and design logos. An innovation friend and colleague, Matt Greeley, president of the company Bright Ideas, has created the online software that helps inventors submit new ideas to companies. GE, for instance, has used Bright Idea’s software to create a successful crowdsourcing program, “Ecomagination Challenge, Powering Your Home.” GE was looking for inventions to help it exploit what has become known as the “smart grid”: data on the generation and distribution of energy. Of the 856 idea submissions to the Ecomagination Challenge, the GE Energy team selected five winners. Each received a prize of $100,000. One of the winning inventions, PlotWatt, for instance, allows homeowners to know exactly how much energy each appliance in their home is using.
As crowdsourcing methodologies continue to evolve, with increasing numbers of companies acting as intermediaries between organizations and crowds of individuals hoping to make a creative contribution to that organization, one can only imagine the potential for improving both the number and quality of corporate innovations.
If your company had the wherewithal and the desire to acquire any other company on the planet, which would it choose? Would it be within your industry or outside it? Or if that’s too fantastical a notion, then consider if your company were going to be acquired by another one. What company would you want to be the acquirer? Whether you’re the acquirer or acquiree, these acquisition thought experiments can be a rich source of new product ideas, new business strategies, and new distribution models.
Let’s say you’re the Vermont-based coffee company Green Mountain. Their acquisition of the coffee-maker company Keurig has given it a huge competitive advantage over other coffee companies by providing an additional outlet for selling its coffee in Keurig’s convenient single-serve K-cups. But what’s next? What would happen if Green Mountain were bought by (or more fantastically, bought) Sony? or Amazon? or McDonald’s? or even Starbucks? How would its business model change? What new products could you imagine it offering if it were either acquired by or acquired WeightWatchers? If you ever find yourself or your team in a less-than-productive phase, essentially trying to till the same ground that’s already been worked over for many years, this technique is guaranteed to get you out of your mental rut and quickly launch you into previously unimagined new fields of opportunity.
Reprinted by permission the publisher, Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley, from Idea Stormers, by Bryan W. Mattimore Copyright (c) 2012 by Bryan W. Mattimore.
Bryan Mattimore is a world-class expert on applied creativity and an innovation process consultant to over one-third of Fortune 100 companies. He is the Cofounder and Chief Idea Guy of The Growth Engine Company. Bryan and his team have helped create and launch products and services worth over $3 billion in annual U.S. retail sales. His clients have included City of New York, BNY Mellon, Thomas’, Ben & Jerry’s, Sony, DKNY, Wyeth, Unilever, IBM, Honeywell, Pepsi, Centrum, Dove, Crayola, Bauer, Ford, and Craftsman.
What’s your favorite (or strangest) way to come up with new ideas? Let us know in the comments.
[Image: Flickr user Seth Radar]