Innovation processes are not one-size-fits-all
This post is part 2 in a series adapted from our eBook, Introducing the BrightFire App for Innovation and Product Management, which defines eight principles to help companies transform innovation lifecycles, from strategy to prioritization to execution. We hope this post spurs additional ideas and conversations. Sign up below for the complete eBook. - Bryan
In our last blog post, we spoke about the need to de-mystify innovation and product management as a means of encouraging people from all functions and levels of the company to identify and implement better ways of working. This post builds on that thought with this principle: there is no single best way to innovate. Rather, there are many valuable approaches. The right one depends on the situation (1).
Figure 1. Innovation Processes Must be Flexible to Reflect Diverse Needs
While this may seem obvious, companies forget it shockingly often when implementing new innovation and product management processes. Why? One of two reasons:
The "new-to-the-world innovation" bias. This probably sounds wrong. After all, shouldn't companies always be striving for more new-to-the-world innovation? Absolutely. The problem is when your new process is so narrowly-focused on this innovation type that it neglects the process needs of other important innovation types. The result: less complex and less risky projects are forced to follow a "new-to-the-world" path that is overkill for their needs.
The "let's automate innovation like ERP" bias. For some reason, when companies add technology to the mix as they transform their innovation processes, they tend to treat their innovation system like their most recent ERP deployment. The result: a rigid and overly-engineered innovation process with a single route from idea to launch, along with a set of complex and granular steps from beginning to end.
What companies really need are flexible innovation models that improve essential elements in the process (2) while providing options, depending on the context. Important drivers of this variability are:
Does the innovation team consist of new, young professionals, or are they deeply experienced?
Is the innovation something we’ve done before, or is it a new-to-the-world concept no one has ever created before?
Is the innovation something that will be launched in a local test with minimal cost, or is it a national launch?
Is the innovation a new product, a new process, a new technology, or a new business model?
Is our company large, established and resource-rich, or it is small, emerging and scrappy?
For years, one of our inspirations, Dr. Robert Cooper, has advocated for the need to provide multiple paths when he originally outlined his principles for gated processes (3). Sadly, this situational mindset has been overlooked by many companies that implement traditional gated methods.
Too often, innovation and product management processes are deployed in an overly-rigid manner. As a result, teams feel the need to complete every phase and every deliverable to comply with a phase-gate mandate, even when they aren't relevant. And they lose sight of the fact that a process should be an enabler of success, rather than a bureaucratic slog. In many cases, teams reject these inflexible processes. And the transformation initiative fails.
The other reason to enable flexible processes is the practical need to include information from every project in portfolio when making investment and prioritization decisions. True, labeling changes, sourcing changes and quality improvements are less sexy than game-changing new product introductions. But bottom line, they all compete for the same resources (e.g. R&D scientists, engineers, operations business managers) (4).
Unless your innovation processes flex to cover to the entire universe of project types, you run the risk of portfolio data integrity problems that prevent even the most basic of portfolio and gate investment decisions. Think of it this way: with a view of the entire range of product projects, you'll have the information you need to protect the resources required by those new-to-the-world projects, increasing the odds of their success (5).
Despite these many challenges, there is some good news: companies today are better able than ever to transform these processes thanks to a new generation of technologies such as the BrightFire App. Increasingly, such tools enable increasingly flexible and lighter-weight processes that still provide material value to teams--and therefore get adopted. The result: accelerated innovation lifecycles, and more comprehensive, trustworthy data that can be used to dramatically improve innovation investment decision-making.
The takeaways: As you plan your own innovation process improvements:
Create processes with flexible guardrails rather than rigid structures.
Identify and enable the minimal optimal process elements that matter most.
Ensure those processes add value to your entire portfolio of innovations and product changes--from new-to-the-world game-changers, to line extensions, to simple ingredient swap-outs.
Empower process leaders to choose the paths most relevant to their work.
Leverage new process automation technologies that enable all of the above.
We'd love your feedback and builds on these ideas via comments on our LinkedIn page. Some questions to consider:
What are some minimal process elements that should be included in every innovation process, regardless of type? e.g., is a financial model required every time? A project definition with problem statement? A risk assessment? What should never be skipped?
How do you strike a balance between empowering process or team leaders to make good process choices vs. mandating they consistently follow certain process requirements? And who should have the authority in the organization to make such decisions?
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3. Cooper, R.G. (2017). Winning at New Products: Creating Value Through Innovation. Basic Books.
4. McGrath, M.E. (2004). Next Generation Product Development: How to Increase Productivity, Cut Costs, and Reduce Cycle Times. McGraw-Hill.
5. Sobelman, N. & Wall L. (2021). The State of Innovation Portfolio Management. Change Logic.