From IoT startups to connected device giants, leaders are yearning to uncork the magic in their R&D departments by getting their ideas out of labs and into the hands of paying consumers faster. And there’s an advantage to be the first to have your product hit the market: generating more profits than your competition.
Unfortunately, the seemingly simple process to efficiently shepherd these new tech ideas into products typically gets obscured by corporate politics, budget approvals, and bureaucratic processes. The good news is that there are a set of best practices we as leaders can champion with our teams and suppliers to compress innovation timelines, unlocking new growth.
In our experience, there’s no magic dust we can sprinkle onto our laptops to create the next big thing, but here are seven hard lessons learned that have proven timeless in their deployment.
7 Ways to Take Your Product Ideas to Market Faster
1. Foster a Culture of Innovation
The day-to-day “firefighting” of our jobs often quickly squashes good intentions when it comes to company culture. Launching a new product in your organization can be both an exciting and stressful time, so you need to make sure there’s a systematic process for rewarding risk in your company to maintain a pipeline of ideas. This can take many forms, but starting small and building momentum usually facilitates lasting success. Setting up weekly product idea meetings, a wiki ideas board, or posting customer problems in breakrooms are all good places to start and use for inspiration.
Actions are a funny thing, once started and repeated, they become organizational habits. As leaders, we must publicly acknowledge employees that take risks and “fail.” because failure is an invaluable learning tool, so finding ways to highlight what the organization learned and next steps in team meetings can do wonders for shifting your team’s mindset toward innovation.
We all must strive to put our own companies out of business by coming up with future products that’ll replace our current revenue streams. “You get comfortable, you stop being hungry, you start to miss the signs, and then all of a sudden you’re blindsided by innovation, and you’re out of business,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, market disruptor, Founder & CEO of VaynerX. If we don’t innovate, our competition will. Be the innovator.
2. Start with Problems, Not Solutions
Think of the customer problems you want to solve and start from there, not from what technologies or offerings are at your disposal. Most companies have a number of technologies they’re working to commercialize, and this is a huge advantage if harnessed properly.
Put in the work up front to understand potential customers and markets. Prioritize your ideas by total addressable market, revenue potential, and difficulty taking the product to market. Then talk to potential customers and use this direct feedback to validate your assumptions and pursue ideas that warrant your most precious resource – time.
“Ask the right questions to understand the right problem to solve, market research can help focus the design to apply the most compelling feature set,” says Grey Parker, Vice President and Director of Engineering at Sundberg-Ferar, a product innovation firm and the second longest standing independent US design studio with 80+ years of experience. Eliminate non-critical wants and execute a simpler, effective MVP (minimal viable product). This will lay the foundation for getting to market quickly and will also shorten the product development process.
3. Create a “Skunk Works” Operation
As the former can prove challenging for leaders at established firms seeking to innovate, it could be easier to create a separate group and/or a new entity to foster an environment of fewer processes and increased speed, where risk-taking and creativity can flourish. This doesn’t have to be at the scale of Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works,” but the mission is the same: implement a small dedicated team that’s empowered to create solutions to customer problems.
“Decisions should be made up front on the core attributes of the product that will drive sales and differentiate in the marketplace,” says Parker.
Once a working prototype is developed and validated with potential target customers in mind, it can then be launched utilizing a new product launch process. Select firms are seeing success with a separate, leaner process for launching all-new products to reduce time to market, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.
4. Partner with Smaller Suppliers
Let’s face it, your largest suppliers are unlikely to present you with technological breakthroughs. Disruption will likely come from smaller suppliers you’ve never heard of with logos you don’t recognize. Thus, our expectations, timelines, and metrics for determining success with these suppliers need to be adjusted. This doesn’t mean we should accept any and all outputs while working with smaller suppliers, but we need to have an appreciation for the limits to working with them.
Keep in mind that it won’t all be upside, but you’re partnering with them because they offer you access to newer technologies your established suppliers don’t. You need to accept that some “creature comforts” might not be on par with larger organizations. These nuances usually surface in the selling process, so procurement teams have a substantial opportunity to lead this effort, quoting smaller suppliers and breaking up larger pieces of business to “trial” smaller suppliers.
“Having the right manufacturing partner can make or break a product. And finding that partner can be difficult; whether it’s navigating a sea of seemingly similar suppliers, or trying to find a reliable, expert source of a highly specialized technology,” says Parker. A proactive partnership approach is needed to seek out and court these smaller supply partners to enable your firm to tab into their innovation.
5. Tap Experts in New Technologies
There’s an understandable level of anxiety sharing future ideas and product plans with suppliers, but there’s much more to be gained through collaboration than lost. Robust supply chain processes, securing NDAs, and controlling what, how, and when information is shared will reduce collaboration risk, while aiding team productivity. “If new technology is a paramount component to producing a compelling product, finding a manufacturing partner that’s experienced and confident in the breakthrough technology is key,” argues Parker.
Co-development with the proper upfront commercial and legal frameworks in place can further unleash innovation. “Technology suppliers should be involved as early as possible, as their feedback is critical to the design process. Industrial designers need to know how to showcase the technology for usability and aesthetics; and engineers need to know how to apply the technology and integrate it into the full system,” insists Parker.
Without knowing the intricate details of how to manufacture a specific technology, the design process is handicapped, and the product is at high risk for re-work, delays, and failure.
6. Form Cross Functional Work Teams
Few actions have such an immediate business impact in such a short amount of time as forming small, cross-functional teams for new product development. This doesn’t have to be a grandiose strategic initiative. It could take as little as an afternoon to deploy, by assigning a lead from each department, assigning a product lead, and scheduling a reoccurring weekly meeting. Results will take time but starting is the most important step.
As Parker puts it, “good product design is a synergy between art, science and manufacturing. It’s a common trap to design a product sequentially:
First, industrial design conceptualizes aesthetics and usability,
Next, engineering executes the design and loops in specification compliance,
Last, it’s presented to manufacturers for production.
The result of sequential design is mis-interpreted design intent, poor design quality and substantial re-work for manufacturability. To avoid this, find and organize a competent team that can execute all key disciplines at the same table at every step. The product will be better, the end-user will be happier, and your company will be more profitable.”
7. Prioritize Where to Innovate
New technologies are only exciting if they see the light of day and are enjoyed by customers. Recognize where to invest and where to re-purpose.
An iPhone is a beautiful product; one that’s gone through decades of iterations with highly customized components in every aspect of the design. Apple leverages an army of resources and complex manufacturing networks on a mammoth scale to do this.
“Applying the proper level of custom technology your product needs is key to success, especially when it’s a new idea that’s just entering the market. Know your users and execute custom solutions in only the right aspects of the product to meet their needs. From there, find opportunities to apply off-the-shelf components to fill the gaps and get you selling product quickly,” says Parker.
Parting Advice to Drive Results
There’s no magic bullet (if you find it email me), but there are things you can do to compress your time to market.
Directly from Peter Drucker, we must “innovate or die.” As leaders we know innovation is important; we know launching new products fuels our future profits. Great products liberate us to increase profit margins, gain market share, and ultimately build and enhance strong brands. Truly innovative products help us solve our customers’ most pressing problems while exploiting uncontested market spaces.
At times, our well-laid strategies and the hum of daily business can get in the way, so now we must act. Use the above best practices to make daily progress on compressing new product development this year, real progress you can see. Once market demand is demonstrated and the revenue starts rolling in, start thinking about a generation 2.0 product with extra bells and whistles to continue out-innovating the competition.