Here is a five-step approach To uses for developing winning products.
1. Create a pro-idea environment
Every product starts with an idea. Those ideas can come from employees, clients, suppliers, partners and others. Your goal is to foster a pro-innovation environment where ideas can flow.
“Idea generation isn’t a step; it’s a process,” To says. “You have to create a favourable environment in which innovation can happen.”
It’s helpful to choose a single point person or team to be responsible for instilling the right environment and collecting ideas from all sources. They should be creative, open-minded people who can think outside the box. They can also actively approach specific groups—for example, your marketing or sales team—to seek out ideas that meet a certain strategic need or customer pain point.
Lisa To advises entrepreneurs to develop key performance indicators for their idea-generation team to monitor its progress (for example, the number of successful ideas generated per year).
Keep in mind that new products don’t have to be revolutionary game-changers. Many successful ideas involve incremental improvements to existing products. Your idea pipeline should include a blend of both kinds of ideas.
2. Brainstorm your ideas
Regular brainstorming sessions are important for wading through ideas and finding the brilliant ones that will take your company to the next level. But such sessions often go off the rails when they’re poorly planned or get hijacked by opinionated participants.
“Properly preparing for a brainstorming session usually takes much more work than the session itself,” To says.
First, define a clear problem question that the session will address. Also outline any time or resource constraints for solutions. Next, pick a facilitator who can keep the session on track and ensure everyone gets their say. Also, choose a diverse mix of participants, including open-minded people, those affected by the problem question and anyone who has been vocal about the pain point.
Be prepared to spend a day to a day and a half on the session. You can structure it in various ways. For example, the facilitator may first solicit or list ideas to address the pain point. Then, participants can sort and discuss the ideas, zeroing in on the best ones.
3. Create a prototype
Depending on your industry, it may be useful to create a prototype product to test for usability, design flaws and safety issues. You can start by making a rough version of the product or a specific component that you can use to work out kinks, and then make a full-scale, detailed prototype.
Turning an idea into a prototype has never been easier or cheaper thanks to new technology such as product-design software, 3D printing and other types of additive fabrication. You can hire an additive fabrication service if you don’t want to splurge on your own machines.
Another option is using a fabrication laboratory (or “fab labs”). This is a space where you can rent product-making equipment, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, mould cutters, vinyl cutters, electronics assembly and sewing equipment. Some fab labs also offer product design advice.
4. Market test the product
Some products may need more tweaking or validation, especially if a big investment is needed to move to full production.
Using a focus group is one option. Another is testing a pilot product with a select group of clients. You can use their feedback to improve your offer before commercialization.
When doing a pilot, determine how much money and resources to invest. The account managers who test the product should also be aware of important product features, which clients to target and how to pitch them. Also, make sure that managers don’t feel penalized because they have less time for regular tasks.
5. Manage a smooth product rollout
Now that you’ve got a winning product, it’s still not time to rest. A seamless rollout takes careful execution. It’s usually best to hand off the rollout to a product manager, not leave it in the hands of the idea generating team.
“The people who do innovation have different skills than people who manage products,” To says. “Innovation requires out-of-the-box, creative thinking, while a product manager has to be detail oriented, able to rally the entire organization and know how to read clients. Commercialization has to be topnotch or a great idea can be lost.”