Product development can be the lifeblood of many businesses. If you make something, like organic soda or eco-friendly toys for children, you probably aren't interested in selling only one flavor or one toy. You probably want a line of products, or numerous services, so you can get repeat customers, bolster your brand recognition and increase market share.
New products and services can drum up excitement among customers and can help keep a business relevant. But product development rarely happens without the big idea. And finding that idea can be harder than it looks. You may love the next best thing that you've dreamed up, but that doesn't mean your customers will share your enthusiasm. Your compelling concept for a product or service might not be cost effective or workable. Or you may have trouble coming up with any decent ideas.
That's where idea generation comes in. There are a lot of paths to product development, such as developing the prototype and marketing it, but you can't travel very far without a good, workable idea.
But how do you come up with solid and smart product development ideas? Some of these suggestions may help.
1. Brainstorm with a purpose.
People know that brainstorming can help you come up with a good idea, but figuring out how to brainstorm effectively can keep any business owner up at night. Time is money, and you can waste a lot of both if it takes you too long in the product development process to come up with the next big thing.
One tactic you might want to try is coming up with a value-driven statement, says Joshua Ness, a New York City-based innovation strategist and co-founder of StrategyHack, which specializes in helping established companies collaborate with startups to develop new products and services.
—Mark Dohnalek, president, Pivot International
Ness says that one of the first things any company should do before spending a lot of time on the creative process is examine why you're developing the product and who it's for. That may seem like an obvious step that will take about 30 seconds, but Ness says that he has seen many owners and their teams spend a few hours debating all of this.
Ness says that your value-driven statement should look something like the following:
My product is a: Explain what the product is.
that helps: Who is the specific target audience?
solve: What problem does the target audience have that this product solves?
by: How does the product provide that solution?
with: What is the secret sauce?
If you're simply developing a basic add-on for your business, like developing that fourth or fifth flavor of soda, some of this may be overkill. But generally, when you're trying something new, these statements can help keep you focused.
“Without this statement and an understanding of what it represents," Ness says, "founders and innovation teams can waste months or years going down rabbit holes."
For instance, Ness says that he worked with a ride-sharing service that, before he came along, spent a year brainstorming ways to compete with more well-known ride-sharing services. It wasn't until they crystallized their value-driven statement that they came up with a different business model, in which they catered to crowded places like airports and trade show conferences.
2. Hire an innovation consultant to help with product development.
There are a lot of innovation specialty firms that work with companies. They tend to do everything from market research to setting up spaces to hold focus consumer groups and helping companies use that knowledge to create new products and services. In short, they assist in discovering new products and services and even train business owners, managers and employees to innovate.
And, sure, that won't be cheap. But assuming you hire one that's reputable and comes with a lot of recommendations, you might end up saving a lot of money in the long run.
Michael Smart is the founder of Egress Solutions, a boutique consulting firm based out of San Ramon, California. Smart says that innovation doesn't come about due to luck or even having the right skills in your team.
“It comes from having an effective process," he says.
It's impossible to say, of course, whether an innovation firm is right for your company. It depends on the firm you hire and how in sync their company is with yours. But a good innovation consulting firm, according to Smart, will help you stay focused on successful market outcomes, keeping your innovation costs down and will conduct front-end market research from the point of view of the customer. That last part is critical, according to Smart.
“Customers only hire a company's products to help them do a job," he says. “If there is a better alternative, the customer can simply hire it instead."
3. Include outside voices in your product development process.
Whether or not you bring in a consultant, business owners and consultants tend to agree on this next point—consider looking for inspiration and ideas beyond your company.
"Brainstorming needs to be done by reaching out and analyzing the marketplace," says Mark Dohnalek, president and CEO of Pivot International, a Lenexa, Kansas-based global product development and manufacturing firm.
“This is done by getting feedback from social media, reading comments on [industry] articles and talking to people who interact in that channel," Dohnalek says. “That's the key to finding gaps and creating marketable ideas and solutions to needs not already being met in current platforms."
If you're really ambitious, you could put together a task force of your best and brightest employees to study what the competition is doing and have them report back with their findings in a few weeks or months, whatever you think it'll take. (That's something the U.S. Navy did a couple years back, creating their own innovation task force.) You might make a habit of going to more trade shows to look for inspiration at what your peers are doing. You could begin holding focus groups with your loyal customers to see what they wish you were doing.
Another way to bring in new voices is to hire them.
“Never discount the talent of students. They're on the cutting edge of technology, and they often bring a fresh perspective to the R&D process," says Jan Bednar, CEO of ShipMonk, a fulfillment and shipping company based in Deerfield Beach, Florida. "We have hired current students and recent grads for these positions."
Or if your business is full of younger employees, you may want to hire someone who has been working for a few decades. You could also reach out and find a mentor at SCORE, a nonprofit in which volunteers, working and retired professionals offer free advice to business owners.
But while those outside voices are important, let's not throw the inside ones under the bus. Consider soliciting opinions from everyone inside your company and those associated with it. It may be beneficial to speak to anyone who could have a role in getting your product or service off the ground, says LaKiesha Tomlin, owner of Thriving Ambition, a career coaching website for executives in science, technology and engineering.
“It's important for organizations to make sure they identify all stakeholders," she says. That could mean any key personnel who works in production, quality control or your global supply chain. She also suggests talking to any other organization that you consider crucial to your product development success.
“Having these people involved in the front of the process ensures that there are no unpleasant surprises down the line," Tomlin says.
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