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Jeffrey Phillips


Six Ideas to Accelerate Success at the Front End

An appropriate amount of good failure (early) can eliminate bad failure (late)

Published: Monday, April 23, 2018 - 11:01

I have been thinking a lot about why innovation fails. Not about why supposedly innovative new products fail, because there are multiple reasons for that. A product could be too early or too late in the market window, or it could simply have the wrong pricing or distribution. A new product may lack key features or components, or like some successful products, take years to build an audience. I’m actually more interested in the 90-percent or more of ideas that never make it to product development. Why is there so much failure at the front end of innovation?

I was going to describe the failures at the front end, but that seemed too negative. If we can identify why ideas and processes fail, then we can begin to add value to innovators everywhere. So, first a brief segue into the importance and value of failure, then six ideas to implement to increase innovation success in the front end.

Failure—the good, the bad, and the ugly

Let’s first admit that some failure is necessary. If some ideas don’t fail, then we probably aren’t stretching ourselves and our thinking. If you have a high success rate in the front end, then it’s likely all of your ideas are incremental. To some extent failure demonstrates that your front end is exploring, discovering new ideas and technologies, and stretching the definition of the company and its value proposition. As much as any can be, these are good failures.

A lot of failure isn’t due to ideas, however. A fair amount of failure in the front end is tied to too strict metrics, too onerous expectations, too little patience, and a culture that resists innovation and wants to get back to efficient, effective operations. This is the bad side of failure.

Of course, the ugly failure is taking a poorly conceived idea and pushing it through a product or service development process, incurring significant costs, only to see the new product fail in the marketplace.

Six ideas to accelerate success in the front end

Spend enough time scoping and shaping the innovation opportunity. Often, executives will say they need new solutions in a specific area or market space, but fail to establish exactly what the outcomes or deliverables should look like, how much divergence from existing products should be delivered, and the potential range of innovation outcomes (e.g., products, services, business models) is acceptable. Without better scope and definition, the innovation teams almost invariably constrain themselves to something that looks and feels a lot like existing products or services.

The more divergent or disruptive the opportunity, the more you must conduct trend spotting and scenario planning to understand how the future may unfold. Incremental ideas simply add features to existing and valuable solutions. Disruptive innovation creates something radically new, so it helps to have a sense of how the future may unfold, to predict emerging needs or segments.

Gather market and customer needs, using both qualitative and quantitative means. Understand the market and the customer. Understand the existing solutions, the alternatives, and the substitutes. Find unmet or underserved needs, and understand the value and importance of those needs to your customer.

With this framing and context as convergence, diverge again. Find the best technologies, intellectual property, or ideas, either internally or externally, that create solutions within your scope and based on your research. Whether you conduct a brainstorming exercise or use open innovation, this is a new opportunity for divergence to find the best solution.

Prototype, prototype, prototype. Build prototypes and conduct rapid experiments with your ideas. Get rapid feedback and incorporate the feedback into a new round of prototyping. This confirms your assumptions and provides meaningful feedback from customers.

Understand your commercialization path. You may simply place the requirements for the new product or service into your product development program, but other pathways to value exist. What are the best pathways to value? Licensing, partnering, joint venture, and other means are also available. Consider the best means to get the new idea to market and to value.

If you can frame your innovation activities in such a way that you improve the definition of the activities (scope), and gain more insight and definition about customer needs and market trends (context) then your second divergence (finding the best ideas or intellectual property or technologies) will be much easier. Using more and more frequent prototyping helps accelerate the identification of the top attributes and features, and signals customer demand. From this you can plan the best path to value.  

Building these attributes into your front end process will not eliminate failure, but that’s not your goal. Your goal is to have the appropriate amount of good failure (early) and reduce or eliminate bad failure (late).

First published February 2018, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).