Not long ago, a client found out I was the creator of an early viral video campaign she had admired back in the Dark Ages (2006). When I told her about the business results, her jaw dropped. She insisted on doing something similar and asked for advice on how to begin. My answer: “Slow down. Let’s make sure we’re answering the right question.” After all, a video campaign is a tactic, and tactics that do not serve objectives and strategies often fail. My campaign had been planned with a particular growth outcome in mind.  At that time we had poor market share with a particular group of customers because of low brand awareness. The videos were specifically designed to increase brand awareness among that specific group. That’s why they were successful, as opposed to merely entertaining. So before contracting a production company, I suggested she first get specific with her objectives.

The same applies to innovation. Starting down a path because it worked for someone else is often a quick route to disaster. Innovation discussions should never start with tactics. Should we develop a bigger widget? A faster wodget? A shinier whatsit? Any of them might be a good idea if they support the right goals. But that’s the issue: tactics that are not developed with specific objectives in mind may lead you in the wrong direction, consuming scarce resources and creating organizational havoc. A great idea in one context may be a terrible one in another. “What are we trying to accomplish, and why, and what makes us believe we can win?” should always be the starting point of any innovation discussion.

Successful innovators in large organizations begin with the end in mind. That’s because, with scale, competitive advantage often comes largely from aligning huge forces against clear goals, creating an unstoppable force. By contrast, when everyone is pushing in different directions, it’s easy for competitors to run right by. If objectives and strategies are not clear enough to provide guidance, don’t whip up new projects until they are clear. Working long hours doesn’t win wars if you’re not working on the right things. Start by asking:

  • Can we own this strategy and does it differentiate us in a meaningful way? If so, is the strategy big enough to justify a major investment in NPD? Are our ideas big enough to help the strategy succeed?
  • Is it a me-too strategy that is simply the cost of remaining competitive? If so, how little effort can we get away with? Are our ideas contained enough?
  • Which metrics are most relevant for guiding decisions? How will we avoid wasting resources by optimizing the wrong things?
  • Whose support will we need to succeed? What motivates them? Are we addressing their interests?
  • If we build it, do we have the tools to sell it? If not, does profit potential justify investment in both new go-to-market infrastructure and development cost?
  • Do we clearly understand the target customers’ needs? Why they will want to buy?

Until we have addressed questions like these, it is silly to begin development, because you might end up like the army that marched with great discipline and precision in the wrong direction.

It’s always fine to explore new ideas and pursue game-changing innovations. That’s where progress begins. All I’m saying is that before you plan major initiatives and commit material resources to something new, make sure you are aligned with overall strategy. Only when you are clear about how your project will further organizational priorities, and how it will succeed in the marketplace, should you ramp up resources. Only then have you given yourself the right to win.

[Caveat: This post addresses selecting projects for NPD. Technology Development projects that have the potential to generate new capabilities and therefore drive new strategies need to be managed by a separate set of rules.]
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