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Six critical questions for successful product innovation


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What is the product, and what are you trying to accomplish? Is this a new product, or are you using it as an avenue to launch a new line of business? Answering questions like these will help determine the next product development steps.

Most of us have heard of the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. And we often add how to the list. These questions lead us to facts, and they have an inherent elegance in that each question cannot be answered with a yes or no. The questions serve as a means for achieving complete understanding and product innovation success.

Applying these questions to product innovation is something we don’t do often enough. On the surface, it is a simple exercise. In reality, it is a bit more work, but the results can be most rewarding. Let’s look at these six questions with a lens on product innovation.

1. Who are the stakeholders?

When we think about the “who,” we need to consider that there are many stakeholders with different needs. The first two stakeholders that come to mind are who the product is for and who will buy it (which may or may not be the same person). You must identify these first two stakeholders before considering others. Once you’ve pinpointed your target audience (your external stakeholders), you must identify internal stakeholders, such as who will make the product and bring it to market.

All the people in the project team creating and launching the product are certainly part of the “who.” There are stakeholders in engineering, product management, design, marketing, finance, sales, decision-makers, executives, and people who provide the funding. Each of these stakeholders has different jobs to be done—and availability—so you have to understand who all these people are and how they interact within your innovation ecosystem. It’s also important to consider that your ecosystem may include partner companies to develop or launch the product, creating further stakeholders.

2. What are you making?

This is where we get into the product definition, which is usually the realm of product management. What is the product, and what are you trying to accomplish? What are the problems you are looking to solve? Is this a new product, or are you using it as an avenue to launch a new line of business or a new business model?

Another critical component of the “what” category deals with your business environment—which has a lot of categories but broadly includes those items that will impact your new product’s success. Some examples are your organization’s business and development environment, regulatory requirements, competition, and technology evolution. Identifying these factors and planning for the environment your product will enter will help remove friction and eliminate surprises in development that can raise expenditures and delay time-to-market.

3. Where will our new product be created and sold?

There are numerous location-based considerations in new product development that companies must coordinate. The most obvious “where” is where you will sell your product—a result of the geographical markets you intend to pursue. This can be a complicated question for global companies who may have variants of the same products depending on what country it plans to sell within. The “where” touches on corporate strategies and regulatory considerations, which can vary by country.

As for creating the product, there are up-front decisions regarding where the engineering and manufacturing will take place.  Things can get complicated if these two aspects occur in multiple locations. With connected products, you may also have a situation where the physical product and the software are produced in different locations. Hence, it’s also critical to determine where these two components will be combined.

It is also important to consider the stakeholders we mentioned earlier. Where are they located? Are they in different countries, time zones, business units, or companies? You need to keep stakeholders informed based on where they are.

We should also note that “where” affects “what.” Perhaps you have regional and local variants of your product. Your “what” might change based on where you're selling it or doing business. Apple chargers are an excellent example of that. Electrical receptacles vary from country to country. Apple decided that the essential components of the charger would remain the same and addressed the least cost and most effective solution possible—creating a snap-on adapter for the particular receptacle based on where they sold the phones.

4. When will we need to hit various milestones?

Timelines can be challenging, and it’s essential to have visibility into each team contributing to a new product launch to make necessary adjustments to the numerous deadlines teams must make along the way. We need to consider several variables:

  • When the product will be ready for testing
  • When testing will be completed
  • When the product should launch
  • When the product must launch

And, as we mentioned earlier, the Ws are often interconnected. The “when” is impacted by what the product is, who it’s for, and where it will be distributed.  Let’s say that you have a product for summer . That’s the “what.” But the “when” of summer is directly linked and cannot be separated.  The product is a combination of what and when.

“When” conjures up a visual roadmap in our minds. A roadmap is the ultimate representation of “when.”  It interrelates “when” across the three dimensions of products, technologies, and markets. A good roadmap also interrelates all the other W’s:

  • What the product is
  • Who the product is for
  • Where and when it is going to be sold
  • Why we have this product
  • Why it has value

And even some of the “how,” which we will cover next.

5. Where will our new product be created and sold?

Here we come to an honorary “W.” One of the most important—and challenging—aspects of new product development is how an idea moves from ideation through development to launch and becomes a viable product in the market. How will we do the engineering? How will we do the launch? Once organizations move past the innovation front end and decide to move forward, they must have the appropriate project approach to develop their product, whether waterfall, Scrum, Lean, Agile, etc.  The “how” might include a scaled-down version of what the final product may be or even a minimum viable product (MVP).

It’s critical to determine how you will define, design, engineer, manufacture, release, and sell the product. But the “how” extends to other areas like funding and decision making.  Good rules of governance address these dimensions and organize how you fund a product, how you make decisions around it, and how you measure it.

6. Why are we developing this product?

This is probably THE most important question. Author Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk, “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” is a must-watch for anyone. The presentation posits that the key to any organization’s success is identifying why you’re doing what you do. Unfortunately, we forget about the “why” over time, especially in new product development. We get preoccupied with the other more pressing concerns: when what, and how.

“Why” is about strategy. For many companies, it's about transformation. For example, Pepsi-Cola transformed from one type of product—indulgent drinks and snacks—into a balanced portfolio where they incorporated healthy products. For others, the “why" might be about environmental sustainability, corporate growth, or product leadership.

Your “why” should be the anchor for your product. When a product idea is proposed, scrutinize whether the product supports the company’s mission and strategic goals. Continue examining the “why” through every development phase. If the product strays from the mission at any time, it’s good to ask why (another why!) and determine if there are actions to re-center things or, potentially, scrap the product altogether.

In my experience, the most innovative companies have answers for all six of these questions and understand how these queries intersect before, during, and after product development and launch.

Sopheon helps organizations answer these questions and ensure visibility to ensure a successful new product launch. And listen to more about this topic on the Innovation+ Talks podcast.

Our new e-book, “Four ways executives can accelerate innovation and new product development,” offers insight on how you can promote more profitable NPD, accelerate enterprise growth and achieve long-term success. Download it now.

Innovation Management, Sopheon

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