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Innovation time machine: Putting primitive fire making through a new product development process

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Any organization with a great idea should take a cue from our primitive ancestors: Identify the problem first, and take the appropriate steps to ensure success before, during, and after the launch.

Regardless of the industry, companies must have a transparent, repeatable new product development (NPD) process to reduce risk, increase efficiency and, ultimately, increase the probability of success. While automated processes and collaboration technology have helped optimize the process, the basic rules for guiding a product from ideation to launch have remained the same since, well, forever.

With that timeline in mind, let’s examine what the NPD journey might have looked like for before-the-dawn-of-civilization fire makers and apply those lessons to today’s dynamic NPD environment.

Innovation ideation

One evening, while staring at the stars, a forward-thinking Neanderthal sets their undeveloped mind on food. The vermin the tribe hunts is filling and plentiful, but it’s raw, very chewy, and requires much effort to eat. And there’s another observation that is pretty advanced for someone so primitive: A violent illness often commences just a few hours after prey consumption. The caveperson realizes there must be a better way to prepare dinner.

Modern takeaway: Identify a customer problem that needs to be solved. Many companies move forward with products with interesting tech features instead of asking whether or not this solves a practical challenge. A simple solution will always perform better than a cool gadget that doesn’t make a customer’s life easier.

Market analysis

Our protagonist schedules an all-cave meeting to determine if others have similar challenges. It’s several centuries before the hustle and bustle of corporate America, and everyone’s calendars are clear. Each of the inhabitants weighs in, nodding and grunting similar concerns. The problem is more rampant than initially anticipated, especially with how many suffer from tooth loss and decay—gnawing through the day’s catch is even more difficult. The initial market assumption was spot-on.

Modern takeaway: Let customer data drive the next steps. While knowing your customers inside and out is critical to identifying a problem to be solved, you still have to bounce the idea off your target audience. Your intuition should help determine potential products in the ideation stage, but conducting research will confirm just how relevant it is to your customers. Remove your ego and let customer input guide adjustments to the potential product.

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Concept development

Our caveperson’s more profound food-related musings eventually lead to one of the universe’s first “A-ha!” moments: Let’s heat it up! But how? The two primary sources of heat are the sun and the volcano. Through a series of excruciating experiments, they learn that the volcano is too unpredictable to provide a consistent heat source. That night, lightning strikes a tree outside the cave, setting it ablaze. The caveperson has yet another stroke of inspiration and conducts a series of tests to determine how to generate enough heat with branches to create fire.

Modern takeaway: Keep an open mind during concept development. The path from point A to point B is straightforward on paper, but the path zigs and zags once you start to work on it. You may learn the initial plan isn’t quite as simple as you thought, or you might identify unexpected additions to the product that solve other problems.

Prototype

They perfect the fire-creation method and, with fellow cavers’ help, create a minimum viable product (MVP) for a grill to hold the meat. They conduct tests to determine how long you must cook various types of meat to ensure quality and safety. Also, there are best practices for maintaining a flame. They soon develop safety methods to avoid becoming cooked meat themselves.

Soon, a select number of cave neighbors gather for a product testing session. The response is overwhelmingly positive. Chewing is easier, and invitees rave about the improved flavor. Most importantly, no one doubles over with intestinal discomfort overnight.

Modern takeaway: Scrutinize the prototype, but don’t let glitches overwhelm you. In almost every NPD project, a product’s shortcomings are exposed. There’s no perfect prototype. I’ve always viewed testing as an opportunity to learn to create the best possible product. If you’ve done all the due diligence on the front end, you’re probably just making adjustments. Also, take the most detailed notation possible to ensure efficient knowledge management—there’s a good chance those learnings will be helpful for future product iterations.

Launch

After a few more weeks of adjustments and tests, the market-ready version of this new heat-generating product is ready for primetime. Our prehistoric friend spreads the word to neighboring caves, thinks deeply about how to position the benefits and alleviate concerns, and plans an exhibition of the new invention. The inhabitants of neighboring caves gather for a feast, where the inventor educates everyone on how to make the fire and build an appropriate grill and shares various cooking techniques. Word spreads, and soon all caves are alive with the fragrance of prehistoric barbecue.

Modern takeaway: Have a coordinated, strategic plan for launch. Know every inch of what you’re launching and add extra cycles to educate your customers on complex features through simplified explanations. As someone who has worked on the project for months, what will be obvious to you may not be to someone else. Most importantly, launch the product in a manner that will mean the most to your customers, whether via ads, social media, influencers, etc.

Post-launch analysis

The caveperson realizes that the invention has other uses, and there’s an opportunity to expand the product portfolio. Fire is a great way to stay warm during the cold months and helps you see in the dark. And that torch can help scare away predators. They quickly develop new ways to harness fire, cementing their reputation as innovators and market disruptors.

Modern takeaway: Put as much thought into the post-launch analysis as the other steps in the NPD process. A new product is an opportunity to set the organization up for many years of revenue with each iteration. With the advent of technology, the opportunities to refine and improve products are almost endless.

Any organization with a great idea should take a cue from our primitive ancestors: Identify the problem first, and take the appropriate steps to ensure success before, during, and after the launch. You might just be introducing the world to fire—it’d be a shame if the idea never made it out of your cave.

New and even more complex challenges are looming on the horizon – on top of ongoing internal discussions about the scope and structure of our function. Learn more about how to overcome these challenges, get your copy of The Innovator's Handbook 2022,the best & latest in corporate innovation. Download it now.

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