When the Front End and Back End of Innovation Collide

by Pete Foley

When the Front End and Back End of Innovation Collide

This article was inspired by a recent blog by Seth Godin, where he discussed some challenges that start-ups who rely on early adopters may face when they scale up. https://seths.blog/2018/11/the-curse-of-the-low-hanging-fruit/For a start-up, early adopters who are highly engaged in a category, and/or know they have a problem, often represent easy sales.  They typically need little persuasion, are relatively easy to target, and are typically more willing to shell out hard cash for a top of the line product, because it matters more to them.  However, in his blog, he makes the point that sooner or later you will exhaust this group, and then have to make a choice.  Expand by adapting your product to appeal to a broader, perhaps less discerning or less engaged audience, or move onto to create a new product for another set of early adopters.

 Low-Hanging Fruit and the Back End of Innovation:  His point is well made, although I’d argue that we don’t all have the luxury of even this choice. Small, agile organizations will often have the flexibility to choose between these different strategies.  However, larger companies who have large volume targets for new initiatives, or companies whose products require heavy R&D or regulatory investment probably have little option but to follow the ‘expand via broad appeal’ option.  This is certainly my experience when working with large companies.

I also have to say that some benefits translate more easily than others from early adoption to mass, especially as we move from engaged to less engaged consumers who pay have other priorities, or less motivation.    And pragmatically, pricing for mass often requires some ‘salami slicing’. If this occurs over multiple iterations,  it introduces a very real risk of reducing a WOW! benefit to something far less exciting; a dilution of benefit that can be treacherously easy to miss, much like a lobster doesn’t notice it is in a pan of water that is slowly brought to the boil.

The Front-End of Innovation: All of that said, to be wary of low hanging fruit is still excellent advice as we move to market.   However, what attracted me to the article even more than it’s applicability to market expansion, was it’s relevance to the very start of the innovation process.

When looking to solve a problem, or come up with a new idea, that first viable idea that surfaces is often almost irresistible.  A variation on the confirmation bias means that once we find an answer, it’s really hard to let it go and look for a better one.  Like a radiologist who finds a tumor in a scan, and fails to find the second smaller one that eventually kills the patient, immediate success can obscure a bigger, more important truth.

In innovation, I call this a false Eureka.  It looks good, makes sense, but it is low hanging fruit.   If we jump on this first idea, even if it is good enough in today’s world, it may not be good enough by the time we get to market. To paraphrase Seth Godin’s article, while we are feasting on our low-hanging fruit, what if someone else gets a ladder and grabs a higher, sweeter one?  Will our success be short-lived, or will we be beaten to the market altogether?

As an example, cnsider Polavision, a major commercial failure for Poloroid in the late 70’s. Poloroid invested millions in developing what was a pretty neat idea; instant video.  However, it was late to market, and had to compete with an even neater upcoming technology, VHS and Betamax.  Polavision effectively died on the vine, although some of the core technology was reapplied for a while in color slide photography.  Now I’m not suggesting that if the Polaroid team had sat around for another few hours they would have come up with VHS, as they were almost certainly far too deeply entrenched in their own core technologies for that.  But it does illustrate that even what appears to be a great today, can quickly be rendered archaic by newer technologies, even before it hits the market. This is a common problem that I believe makes it at least worth taking some time out to consider alternatives before jumping on the innovation train, and riding that great initial idea from the front to the back end of innovation.

Of course, we don’t want to procrastinate too much either.  Wait too long, and parallel invention becomes an increasing risk.  Often the stars align, and conditions are right for an invention to occur almost automatically.  In these cases multiple but separate individuals or group independently come up with the same idea in parallel – calculus and evolution are classic examples.

But it takes far longer to develop an idea than execute it, so if we find an obvious solution, it is often a good idea to resist it, at least for a short while, and explore the alternatives.  Of course, this is easier said than done, as we are fighting the confirmation bias, and our own entrenched expertise, which tends to lead us to evolve existing technology, rather than jump to new ones.

So how do we take a productive pause, and hit the right balance between speed and scope?  Below I’ve shared a couple of approaches for consideration.  These are tools that we can use to quickly evaluate the resilience of our initial idea to a changing external world, and that we can quickly leverage before we jump into delivery, or even proof of concept mode.

1.  Expand the Scope. This borrows in part from the 9-windows tool, described in  The Innovator’s Toolkit by David Silverstein, Philip Samuel and Neil de Carlo.  Do we need to operate at the same scale as our default?  Or are there bigger opportunities if we explore time as a variable? For example, could we look for micro or nano solutions instead of macro ones (something that we often see in nature)?  Can we solve at the systems level?  The latter is particularly important when we are trying to innovate sustainably.  An electric car for example is only more sustainable if the source of electricity is more sustainable than the equivalent petroleum.  If our electricity comes predominantly from coal fired power stations, this may not always be the case.  Are there opportunities for controlled release, pulsed doses, sequenced products?  Can a slow trickle beat a single pulse, or can we build performance over time?

2. Fix the End Result, not the Tool. If we are an expert on a certain technology or process, it is all too easy to fixate on improving what we know.  There is a classic story, which is sadly only partly true, about the Space Pen.  Pens need gravity to work, so the story goes that NASA and a private contractor spent millions developing a pen with a ‘heart’ that could pump ink in zero gravity.  The Russians, who at the time were entrenched in a fierce space race with NASA,  stepped away from pen optimization, looked at the result rather than the tool, and instead simply used a pencil.  The true story is more complex, and less amusing,, but the concept is a good one.  Stop looking at how we can improve our existing product, and instead look at how we can improve the end result.  For example, if we are a laundry detergent expert, it is obvious to optimize product chemistry or form.  But what if the design of a washing machine offers a platform for much bigger jumps in cleaning and fabric care?  Or if we are a tooth brush expert, it is easy to become enamored with a new toothbrush design idea.  But what if we stop trying to improve a toothbrush, but look instead at the bigger space of oral care?   Then we can start to look at flossing, irrigation, diet, chewing gum, supplements, chemistry from toothpaste and mouthwash, lock and key systems, etc. Some of these have the potential to perform far better than a simple brush improvement.

3. Devils Advocates. Sometimes the only way to see the wood for the trees is to have someone else look.   The use of Devils Advocate panels is relatively common as innovations reach the back end, and are fine tuned for commercialization.  Have we missed an obvious pitfall?  Have we missed the killer application?  Is there external innovation that will outstrip us?  Is our patent strategy comprehensive?  But a Devils Advocate approach can be really useful at the ideation stage too.  Have we looked far enough outside of our comfort zone?  Are we trapped by our own expertise?  Are we looking at the problem as a toolmaker rather than a tool user?  Etc.

None of these three approaches guarantee that we’ll pluck a higher, sweeter fruit from our tree of possibilities, but they do increase our chances.  Sometimes just a little procrastination can save a lot of wasted effort.  Too many innovation sessions are judged on the number of ideas we come up with.  Better ones measure how many realistically viable ideas we generate.  The best ones drive us to find ideas that will not only create WOW today, but also long into the future, and in a context that will inevitably be different to the one that existed when we started the innovation process.

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Image credit: Greentechmedia.com

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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