Great Ideas = Great New Products, Right? Wrong!

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Successful innovation is more than just coming up with great new product ideas.  And innovation strategy is more than a series of ideation sessions.  Great new products don’t just come from great new ideas.  Rather, they often come from learnings gained from bad ideas, and they come from extensive refinement and development of promising ideas – not from sheer volume of ideas generated at ideation sessions.

“I can’t wait to tell the CMO about the new product ideas that failed in consumer testing”

Said no one.  While companies pay a lot of lip service to encouraging more failure in the innovation pipeline, the sad truth is that most corporate structures (and bonus objectives) are still not set up to embrace failure, even though we all at some level realize that failure is a good thing in innovation.

But, we are all still disappointed when we test a bunch of new product ideas with consumers, and they aren’t all successful.  We often only spend time trying to understand why the bad ideas failed when they are the pet idea of the SVP of Marketing and our goal in analyzing is more driven by a need to explain it to the boss than to gain real learning from it.

At Ipsos, we are firm believers that early-stage innovation testing is the most cost-efficient way to test a large number of ideas, identify the most promising ones, and optimize the innovation pipeline early on in the new product development cycle.  When marketers and researchers test a large number of early-stage ideas – 25, 50, 100 – that natural inclination is to focus on understanding which ones are the best and should be prioritized for development.

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And that’s not wrong – but it’s not whole story.  Equally, or perhaps even more important is to understand why the weakest ideas failed.  We should be leveraging early-stage innovation research to generate productive failures.  A key goal of testing your new product ideas should always be to answer the question, “What did we learn from our failed ideas?”

If we don’t answer that question, the idea’s failure is not productive.  Even scarier is the situation when none of the ideas fail, which typically means ideation is too conservative and the ideas being tested are probably not breakthrough innovations.  Failures create learning opportunities, and many of the major innovations over the years came about as a result of harnessing the learnings from failures that preceded them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating we all go out and intentionally try to fail.  Failure is a result, not a goal. But the goal should be to take risks early in the innovation process, test the crazy ideas, and make sure that when failure happens, it is productive and it is embraced as a learning opportunity.

“Let’s stop ideating.  We’ve got enough new ideas.”

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Also said no one.  We love to ideate.  And innovation conversations these days tend to
emphasize the “more is better” mantra: the more ideas in the pipeline, the better the odds of a successful new product.  Plus let’s face it, as Tom Agan at Harvard Business Review points out, ideation is fun.  We get to get out of the office and out of our normal routines and spend a couple days coming up with new stuff.  What’s not to like about that?

Ideation is great, but successful new product launches are even better.  Coming up with 100 new ideas doesn’t mean anything unless if you’re not able follow up on prioritizing, developing and refining them so they turn into new product launches – successful new product launches.

Great products don’t launch from ideation sessions.  Breakthrough ideas don’t happen in a “Eureeka” moment in an ideation session and show up on shelves a few weeks later.  The biggest innovations to succeed in the market are often years in the making and the result of careful, deliberate and thoughtful refinement and testing.

This means not only thoroughly testing your ideas early in the innovation process to take risks, identify winners, and understand losers, but also to ensure that research doesn’t stop once a good idea has been identified.  Top performing launches are good ideas that are well executed – with the right consumer insights, the right packaging, the right positioning, the right advertising, and the right price.

Learn from your losers, and work on your winners.

Before going into another ideation session, just as much if not more time and investment should be spent understanding and refining the ideas you already have – understanding the failures, prioritizing the winners with the right criteria, gaining the internal alignments necessary to move forward, and developing and researching the executional elements necessary for those ideas to turn into products that succeed in the market.

Coming up with great new ideas is not the key to long-term success in the market, but rather a means to an end.  Launching successful new products is dependent upon not only coming up with good ideas, but also ensuring that bad ideas become productive failures, and that good ideas get the attention, development and research they need to turn into great products: Fail early, learn often, refine heavily.