De-risking your innovation

Jacquie Potts has written the following thought-piece on  innovation. As MD of Marketwise Strategies, which is in its seventeenth year of helping clients de-risk their innovations, she has worked with a wide variety of organisations across the UK and internationally: from technology companies to universities, major not-for-profits and some of the UK’s best-known public sector agencies.

New product development – understanding is power

What makes a new product or service innovation most likely to succeed – and how can the risks be reduced? In my experience, whilst what organisations ‘do’ around new product development (NPD) is crucial, what organisations – and the people running them – ‘believe’ is often worthy of a closer look.

Thinking upfront = value from research

What those clients (and their projects) have in common is some sort of ‘knowledge-focus’ and a risk that needs to be reduced. Together, those factors produce a need for robust, insightful research; into markets, customers, competitors and – often – into a whole range of wider issues that can shape the product’s (or project’s) success.

To get maximum value from their research, however, each client organisation needs to do some thinking upfront – and this is where beliefs and values, corporate culture and internal information flows can become incredibly important.

Beliefs really matter

Beliefs around new product development can make an enormous difference to the de-risking that takes place and how effective that is. Beliefs matter because they can lead to market research taking place at the wrong times, among the wrong audiences, and via entirely the wrong methods. Any one of those can send a new innovation ‘off course’.

So I would like to challenge a few of the beliefs that inhibit the de-risking process and that lead to faulty NPD decision making.

Three of the most common ‘unhelpful beliefs’ are that:

  1. Knowledge of the market =power – and data will drive success
  2. The main research need is to measure the market
  3. The time to research the market is after you have developed the product.

Let’s consider those one by one.

1. Knowledge is power – and data will drive success

At a time when data is increasingly available – and plentiful – it is easy to be seduced by the belief that the more data accumulated the better. What really matters, however, is developing actionable insights. In other words, understanding what is going on (in the market place, in competitor organisations and in the mind of the customer), what is influencing this, and what you can do to shape future events.

Data drawn from surveys, developed through data-mining exercises, or aggregated in dashboards cannot help to solve problems unless time is taken to understand it and to use if effectively. Unfortunately, it is increasingly common for organisations to be ‘drowning in data’ that they cannot easily analyse, interpret and therefore act upon. In that situation, what matters most is to step back and assess what you already have – or bring in some help to do that – before spending time or money on any further data/research.

2. The main need to measure the market

Among smaller businesses – and sometimes even among university spin-outs – this is a fairly common view and can lead to the ‘wrong kind’ of market research taking place. In essence, the danger is that all is measured, but little is understood: as not enough investigation takes place into why customers and markets behave in the ways that they do. This focus upon the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ produces shallow insights and can lead to:

(i) NPD market research being conducted twice (for example, if the initial, quantitative-focused work fails to spot important barriers to purchase).

(ii) a product/innovation progressing too far before being ‘killed’ – or even going to market with some very inaccurate assumptions in place.

Either scenario is expensive, compared to getting it right first time.

3.Develop the product then research the market

This assumes a ‘one shot’ approach to NPD market research, rather than a – usually more effective – drip feed, that can inform each stage of the development process. If research is left quite late, then there is a greater risk that product prototypes, initial software developments or other potentially costly areas of spend will take place before customer requirements are properly understood.

Five Stages of NPD market research

To avoid this, we recommend a Five Stages approach, made up of:

Initial market scanning
Detailed market scanning
‘Proving’ the market
Market entry research
Post-launch market monitoring

The Initial market scanning stage builds secure foundations for the NPD process and often acts as the first ‘stage gate’ for Go/No Go decisions. This can often be a DIY exercise, conducted internally, using mostly desk-based research and known contacts.

Detailed market scanning then adds the detail and validates assumptions about demand (current and potential), competition, technologies, trends etc. This stage can benefit from an independent perspective.

Proving the market involves more detailed customer research that will inform product/service design, the business model, pricing strategy, competitive positioning etc. This needs to uncover what ‘value’ really means to the customer and what barriers to purchase exist, as well as getting to grips with the competitive environment. The full range of ‘W’ questions should be brought into play: Who; What; How; Why; Where; and When. This type of research tends to be at its most effective when it is carried out independently.

Market entry research – to inform the details of going to market, such as brand strategy, promotional planning, pricing tactics and to help finalise marketing resource. This also acts as a useful check on any changes within the marketplace, that might influence success. Very much tailored to the product and market, this stage tends to require a mix of methods and might involve a team – across the business – plus external market researchers and the marketing agency that is developing the brand and the promotional campaign.

Post-launch research is just as important as the earlier stages, in that it keeps the product or service on track for success. This can largely be built into day-to-day business operations, enabling low cost, data gathering and ongoing customer feedback.

Not every organisation requires every stage – and not every stage requires the same amount of detail. but being aware of those stages is a useful first step.

De-risking is a balancing act

De-risking any new product or innovation is a balancing act between the degree of risk that is acceptable and the amount of resource needed to produce strategic, risk-reducing insights.

If the emphasis is upon understanding – and, importantly, upon timely understanding – then success is much more likely to follow.

This thought piece was first published via the North East LEP on 2nd February 2017

Marketwise Strategies are valued members of Design Network North. Design Network North is part of RTC’s new programme called ‘Designing Better Business’ – launched in 2016 - which will provide support for north east businesses looking to continue to innovate and design better world leading products.
RTC was founded in 1989 with the sole purpose of helping businesses innovate and create new higher value products. Today, the business operates out of offices in Sunderland, Gateshead, Leeds and Daresbury and specialises in helping companies develop new products, embed new skills through training and access funding for innovation.
Designing Better Business’ is part funded by European Regional Development Fund, as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.