Most leading consumer-facing companies have learned that engaging with consumers in the development of products and services is of critical importance. The problem is that this process of involving consumers takes time – anywhere from months to years – to conduct properly. Delays can be costly; not only is consumer exposure a competitive intelligence risk, but an overly-lengthy process increases the chance that a rival will also pick up on the opportunity and get it on the shelf first. How can firms conduct due diligence in leveraging consumers throughout the product development cycle, uncover meaningful opportunities for new products and services, refine and validate them, and still get the products into market in a timeframe that allows capitalization of first-mover benefits?
More than anything else, the trick to reducing this process is to bring the company generally closer with consumers; this means integrating the voice of the customer throughout the organization in a longitudinal format, and not relying entirely on ad-hoc interactions. Internalizing this philosophy can create a seamless integration between functional specialties and fundamental system elements, and subsequently reduce development time. All system participants must understand customer-defined value from the start, ideally through regular interaction with consumers. This is tantamount to proactively anticipating consumer needs – the more distant a development team from the consumer baseline at the outset, the more revisions will be required later in the product development cycle. Product development must deliver a product design that both meets customer needs and is capable of efficient manufacturing if it is planned to deliver this value to the customer.
A starting point for many successful firms is with a multidisciplinary product development team that aligns people, processes, and technology. By involving individuals from core divisions – including marketing, sales, engineering, even distribution – it is possible to look at the development through a number of different lenses – each of which may have a different view of what consumers may want. Beyond ensuring a mix of skill sets and perspectives, ensuring these folks have sufficient executive power is critical. In too many organizations the product development process becomes bogged down in decision by committee and/or the bureaucratic need to engage the support from higher-ups. An empowered core team that has the ability to make decisions on the direction of a concept can be a route to shaving off weeks, if not months, off the product development cycle.
Next is ensuring design thinking is at the core of the company’s philosophy. Much of the time related to the product development cycle is the need to continually (re)edit concepts based on consumer feedback; ensuring that the team is tightly aligned with the needs of consumers from the outset should be a simple way to reduce this revision time.
This can be seen in two forms:
1) ensuring that the ‘need’ being answered by the product or service truly answers (and is not simply engineering for the sake of engineering).
2) ensuring a balance of both consumer empathy and design rigor. This means problem solving and designed-in countermeasures, along with true cross-functional participation, are key to maximizing the effectiveness of the product development process. This allows a firm to minimize downstream process variation that is crucial to both speed and quality.
Consider also formalizing the process by which products are brought through the development cycle. While the goal of most innovation processes should be to create something disruptive and unique, there is a good argument that the tactical process by which these innovations are developed can be largely similar. Defining steps in the process, identifying who is responsible for completion, who will work on each stage and when they will be completed, can all be templated. Apple in particular makes great use of this structure in its ANPP (Apple New Product Process), first applied in the company in the creation of the Macintosh. Needless to say, the new product development track record at this firm has been fairly good ever since.
This paradox of formalizing development to create flexibility is also at the heart of Toyota’s lauded quality and efficiency. The principle includes concepts such as reusability, common architecture, and standard processes. This allows the firm to eliminate waste in the process, specific program customization, a just-in-time human resource strategy, flexible product development, and other system benefits. Beyond impacting downstream lean manufacturing capabilities, this also allows streamlining or eliminating some of the consumer-facing testing; similar architectures and experiences may not need to be tested multiple times.
Finally, as part of the ‘formal’ development, consider creating an ‘express lane’ by which high opportunity / high priority concepts can utilize. The nature of the express lane can be company-specific, but could include resource priority (engineering, insights, testing). If the firm is managing the front end of innovation correctly, the big opportunities that resonate with consumers should be apparent fairly early in the process – meaning that downstream allocation of resources should be made appropriately.
Many readers may be familiar with the works of Scott Adams and his Dilbert characters; in this comic, the logical, process-oriented engineers are perennially at odds with the consumer-focused, emotional, empathetic marketing team. In reality, product development really needs an integrated mix of the two; better consumer empathy at the development front-end, coupled with rigor and great design thinking, lead to efficiencies that both characters crave so much.
This article appears in MISC Winter 2014, The Balance Issue