Monday, April 6, 2009

Ten Places to Find New Product Ideas

Graham Horton (Zephram Corporation, Germany)

The first step in the innovation process is to define the so-called search fields. These are the broad areas in which idea generation is to be carried out. Search field definition is important, because it enables more precisely targeted questions during idea production. Without it, the ideas scatter much more widely, and many of them will not match the client's needs.

For generating ideas for new products or for improving existing ones, there is a very useful checklist of search fields. This checklist was originally described by Peter Drucker in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and was recapitulated by Michel Robert in his book Product Innovation Strategy. The checklist describes ten events or developments which can provide insights into where new successful products might be found:

  • Unexpected Successes: Where did something go better than expected? A well-known example is Ray Kroc, who was a salesman for milk shake-mixers. One day he noticed that one particular small restaurant had placed an unusually large order for his machines. He looked into it and discovered that the restaurant was doing extremely well. Kroc bought into the business, and McDonalds was born.
  • Unexpected Failures: Where did something go wrong unexpectedly? Here, Robert cited the well-known example of the Edsel, which flopped disastrously - despite a huge effort by Ford. However, Ford learned from their mistake that the automobile was becoming a lifestyle object, and their next model - the Mustang - was a huge success.
  • Unexpected External Events: Unexpected events can create new needs. For example, the oil crisis in the 1970s created a need for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Japanese manufacturers reacted quickly and were thus able to secure a foothold in the US market.
  • Process Weaknesses: Bottlenecks and other process problems can indicate the opportunity for new or improved services. For example, many people who book a flight also need a rental car and a hotel. These three things which inconveniently used to be separate steps in the travel process have now been combined by many travel agents into one convenient package.
  • Industry / Market Structure Changes: Changes in an industry or market can lead to changes in demand. For example, in healthcare, there is a growing interest in alternative medicine, which has led to a large number of new products and services.
  • High-Growth Areas: Fast-growing markets create many opportunities. Social networking applications in the Internet are currently one such market, which have enabled success stories such as Facebook and YouTube.
  • Converging Technologies: When two or more technologies reach a certain level of maturity, combining them can create interesting new products. One example are automobile navigation systems, which have only become possible through the combination of microprocessors, flat screen displays, DVDs and satellite-based information systems.
  • Demographic Changes: New demographic groups and milieus mean new needs. In many countries, there are growing ethnic minorities, at whom new, specialised products can be targeted.
  • Perception Changes: When the public perception of a certain product or issue changes, then new offers can be created to serve this perception. The mobile phone used to be simply a communication tool. However, it has now become a lifestyle accessory, which has led to products such as ring tones and colourful snap-on covers.
  • New Knowledge: On the supply side, new knowledge enables new solutions, while on the demand side, it creates new needs. For example, the gradual diffusion of knowledge about the health problems caused by smoking has led to many quitting aids and other substitute products.

This checklist contains helpful suggestions for generating new products. However, they are very abstract, and thus not directly applicable for ideation. They need to be transformed into more concrete questions, which are better suited for use in an innovation workshop. For example, the process weaknesses can be examined using questions such as:

  • Where can two successive process steps be combined?
  • Which process steps are superfluous?
  • Which step forms the bottleneck?
  • Which step needs a better interface to its predecessor or successor?
  • Could any steps benefit from being split in two?

It is part of our craft as innovation consultants to be able to take such abstract recommendations and insights, which are often to found in the innovation literature, and to derive effective questions from them which lead (our clients) quickly and easily to good ideas. This is one of the measures of a professional ideation workshop.

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