Even big companies struggle with innovation. Take, for example, Gerber’s 1970s attempt to penetrate the adult food market. Instead of developing a new line with its own unique distribution strategy, the baby food brand re-labeled existing pureed products and simply placed them in a different aisle. Or, more recently, look to the flop of Pizza Hut’s ill-fated “Flavors of Now” campaign, which failed spectacularly to drive sales.
Many entrepreneurs strike gold with their first line of products, only to run out of steam when it’s time to expand. Companies that continuously get product innovation right have a certain number of factors and resources in place to encourage free thinking. Sometimes, it just takes the right partner to bring an idea from a rough concept to a full design. Here are some ways to improve product innovation in your business.
Create a Culture that Celebrates Failure
No one wants to fail, but fear of failure prevents employees from taking risks and pushing the boundaries of product innovation. “A recent Gallup study found that only 18% of U.S. employees strongly agree they can take risks at work that could lead to important new products, services or solutions. When the remaining 82% of employees cannot take individual entrepreneurial action, it prevents companies from realizing the benefits of their innovation agenda,” write the Gallup experts.
It’s often said that there are no bad ideas, and that’s a great rule of thumb for sparking innovation. McKinsey advises taking this thinking a step further: “you should also encourage the truly impractical in some situations—for example, when conducting scenario-planning exercises to unearth potential competitive threats.” Pie-in-the-sky ideas can lead to actionable and innovative ideas that can be executed. Just look at how dozens of products we use each day came from NASA’s space exploration research and experimentation.
Create Space for Product Innovation Brainstorming
It’s difficult to think creatively while working in the same routine day in and day out. Companies that don’t make time and space for product innovation will continue running a business as usual.
A hackathon is one way to encourage employees to set aside their day-to-day tasks in favor of product innovation. “Companies far outside the tech world are using these intense brainstorming and development sessions to stir up new ideas on everything from culture change to supply chain management,” writes Harvard Business Review. Involve members from all teams in your company, not just your product team or tech team. Some companies choose a particular topic to inspire innovation; others see what their employees choose to work on, and learn insights from their approach.
Other companies encourage product developers and scientists to pursue passion projects on company time. They invest in their employees by offering training, workshops, and professional development. Google, for instance, follows the 70/30/10 model:
- 70% of projects are dedicated to Google’s core business
- 20% of projects are related to Google’s core business
- 10% of projects are unrelated to Google’s core business
The 10% of projects that are unrelated to Google’s core business inevitably lead to some insight, invention, or innovation that impacts the brand’s bigger goals. And, their employees are happier and more engaged with their work in the process.
Get Some Outside Help
Sometimes, all it takes to spark a new idea is an outsider’s perspective. Find a partner who can review your initial designs and take them from a quick sketch to a full mock-up and 3D model. They can also advise on factors such as manufacturing feasibility, budget, sustainability, and import/export.
Outside help can also come from your customers. Don’t be shy about asking your loyal customers for their input on what products to develop next. Turn to your social media channels to ask your followers what they want to see next. If you have a rewards program or loyalty program, invite your best customers to an exclusive event where you can get their feedback about your brand. If you’re not comfortable or willing to go to your customers, mine their data for behavioral insights or buying patterns that can indicate where the market is going next. Trend watchers like Mintel can help you innovate based on data from your target audience.