What I learned this week . . . came from The Front End of Innovation event in Boston. At day one of the event, Author Jim Collins (Good to Great, Built to Last, Why the Mighty Fall) gave a rousing presentation of findings from his latest research. According to his research, the reason mighty companies fail is not because of lack of innovation. In fact the ones that succeed in the harshest conditions, at “27,000 feet on Mount Everest,” are not necessarily ones who bring a lot of new products to market; it’s the companies that are disciplined in their innovation approach, and have the right people working on the right projects.
I believe this speaks to the need to apply innovative thinking continuously at every point of the product lifecycle, not simply at the ideation stage. Innovation can take place in the design studio, the marketing office, the shop floor, and the supply chain and applied to the front end of innovation to make products and services better. In other words, don’t think of the “front end of innovation” as just “ideation”; it is much more than, as this humorous IBM video depicts, creative people lying on the floor meditating, coming up with cool ideas.
The “20 Mile Marchers” Win
The winners in the harshest of business conditions (like now) are also, perhaps most importantly, companies that stay the course on their mission and strive to make their product or service set better in support of that. One large CPG company was cited as a company that introduced too many new products too quickly, and within five years wasn’t a stand-alone company – this is “Packards Law” where a company is more likely to fail because of too many products and projects without the right people in the right seats. Disney, on the other hand, has a diverse product set that exists religiously in support of their mission: make people happy. They have survived multiple recessions, and the death of their charismatic founder. Innovation is a universally accepted “article of faith” as Collins put it – that’s how it’s assumed, in large part, we’re going to come out of this economic mess stronger, right? But what if innovation isn’t the only key to survive and thrive in the long run? This, as Collins says, is a “wonderfully delicious puzzle.”
Implications for Manufacturers
The takeaway is it’s all about balance: as multiple presenters and attendees at the event said – of course a company needs to innovate, but not at the expense of straying from its mission and certainly not without the supporting team to make the new product development and launch process a success. The companies that succeed in the long run, as Collins puts it, have the discipline “to stay the march” – in other words it’s a marathon, not a sprint, as they say.
Perhaps most importantly, I believe, innovation (especially at the metaphorical 27,000 feet on Mount Everest) is not just ideation; innovation can and should take place at any point on a product’s lifecycle. There is a wealth of information that could be a catalyst for innovation: customer feedback, manufacturing cycle time, product quality issues, environmental impact, supply chain efficiency, recycling and reuse… all should be data feeds to the front end of innovation, which support the goal of every company: make good products, make money, and keep the customer happy.
So tell me what you think – what does the “front end of innovation” mean to you?