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September 2011

Innovation Tools: Enablers or Derailers? 4 Easy Steps to Keeping It on the Rails


"Innovate or Die." It's the current battle cry for businesses trying to get or stay ahead of the competition and remain viable in the market. But how do you avoid innovation for innovation's sake, and instead drive measurable business results through innovation processes and tools?

Birds of a Feather Innovation Leaders Workshop
Birds of a Feather Innovation Leaders Workshop

I learned the answer to that question (and more) at the Birds of a Feather Innovation Leaders Workshop in Chicago a few weeks ago. The event was sponsored by Brightidea and hosted on the Kraft campus. The speakers were great and I especially appreciated their willingness to share what did and did not work in their innovation endeavors. Here's the Cliff's Notes version in four easy steps:

  1. Prepare to Innovate!
    Often companies jump right into idea collection with their employees and customers, desperately searching for the next big thing without giving any consideration to organizational preparedness. I think it was Yoda who said: "There is great responsibility in receiving the idea." Okay, maybe it wasn't Yoda, but it sure sounds like him because it is so profoundly true. For successful innovation, it's necessary to ensure the organization:
    1. is in the right mindset (that of problem-solving)
    2. has supporting processes and tools in place
    3. is properly structured/staffed to execute the processes and administer the tools
    4. is culturally prepared to respond.
    Whatever you do, don't skip these steps! It will sink the innovative spirit of the organization and backfire in harmful ways. I'm not saying you need to spend months and years getting ready to innovate; I'm just recommending that you have answers to the above questions to ensure you are equipped to handle and implement the changes innovation programs can bring.

  2. Focus! And Capture Needs BEFORE Ideas!
    There is a time and a place for the electronic employee suggestion box and open innovation. But having a short-term (2-4 week), focused innovation campaign that gives people a specific problem to solve often leads to more valuable results. And by narrowing idea capture down to a specific problem to solve, it's much easier to define metrics (hard or soft) to determine success and benefit.

  3. Brand It, Baby!
    One way to get people excited about driving innovative results is by branding and marketing your innovation tool and specific campaigns. With today's technology, there is no excuse for rolling out a vendor-branded software tool. Presenters at the conference had full-blown advertising campaigns, including videos to explain the objective and generate hype, and logos with associated color schemes to skin the software. Re-branded programs and tools had names like "Think Tank" and "Idea Kitchen" to really capture the attention of idea submitters. Some companies even sponsored specific "Innovation Days" around a particular campaign to encourage involvement and ownership. Don't fall victim to assuming that "if you build it, they will come." (Field of Dreams; not Yoda.) By branding your innovation program, you're sure to drive quality ideas that deliver results… because it is, after all, about the results.

  4. Show Me the Money!
    Sometimes solving a problem and the feeling of accomplishment in contributing to the success of the company is a reward in itself. But for most of us, a little incentive or some recognition for the great, problem-solving ideas we submit goes a long way. You know how it feels when you put thought and effort into something and it seems as if your idea has dropped into a black hole where there is never so much as a reply or simple, "thank you." It sucks. And why would you waste your precious time on something to which management is only giving lip service. Whether feedback comes in the form of public recognition for being a top innovator (that's FREE for all of you penny pinchers keeping track at home) or in the form of a big fat check (option B, please!), it is critical for the success and sustainability of your innovation program to reward good ideas.

So there you have it, Product Pulse Peeps…innovation in four simple steps. Implementing an innovation tool and program isn't hard, but you can't skip any of the steps if you want to drive real results. As it relates to innovation, Yoda would say (and this time, you can look it up!): "Do or do not. There is no try."

Chief Customer Advocate Reporting for Duty


There were many great takeaways from my recent 2-day session with Pragmatic Marketing. Their expert team, including John Milburn, a friendly upbeat guy with 20 years of product management experience in the tech industry including long stints at Tivoli and VTEL, has more than 10 years of experience working with over 70,000 professionals globally in product management training.

Let's start with the most important thing: The FOOD at the AT&T Conference center on The University of Texas campus (where the class was held) is excellent! This information is neither here nor there but if you get the chance, check out the conference center or hotel as an option next time you're in Austin.

From a more business-oriented standpoint we learned:

  • Product management's primary job is to know and speak for the customer.
    • The following quote (with a few modifications) by Peter Drucker was used multiple times: "The aim of product management is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself."
  • Product management's main responsibility is finding their market's problem. To do this, product managers should:
    • Contact customers (both their own and their competitors'), evaluators, and prospects.
    • Use various research methods including discovery (onsite interviews, focus groups, secondary research) and validation (surveys, choice models, experiments).
  • Too often product management gets overwhelmed with tactical instead of strategic activities.
    • As Milburn noted in class, if product management doesn't do its job then the other departments will fill the void. Other groups have their own goals and ideas so if the product management team is not there to speak for the customer, an inside out product could result (one that solves a space problem but not a strategic one).
  • By focusing on my customers' needs and wants, product managers can help their company build solutions that the market will buy, and what is profit if not the ultimate goal of any company?

After spending two full days getting my head stuffed with information (and my belly stuffed with yummy food), I was raring to go out and apply all these new tips and energy to my job. I was eager to see how much of what I learned in class was applicable to real life.

So far, most of the points ring true. I've spoken with multiple customers about their needs and concerns and gathered a lot of useful information. I have also met a good portion of the executives, sales, marketing, and development teams and worked with them on a hodgepodge of projects. It will be interesting to see how well I remember my role as Chief Customer Advocate once I get inundated with a lot of tactical stuff. I will try my best to focus on strategy, Milburn and Drucker!

I am new to product management, but there were people in my session with years of experience, and we each felt that Pragmatic Marketing taught us something useful. Just goes to show that no matter where you are on your career path, there are always opportunities to better understand the marketplace and your role in it. And, that information is almost as satisfying as the AT&T Conference Center's dessert bar!

Lessons from the Invention of Sliced Bread


"It's the best thing since sliced bread!" Cliches like this stick around for a reason. To this day, we hear this statement everywhere. So, arguably, sliced bread must have been considered a pretty darn good invention. Or at least one would think. But what do we really know about how sliced bread was invented? I decided to find out.

In 1912, an Iowa inventor named Otto Rohwedder invented a bread slicer. Bakers of course declared it totally useless, since sliced bread would quickly grow stale. For most people -- end of story. But not for Rohwedder.

For 13 years, he searched for ways to hold the slices together, including -- believe it or not -- hat pins. It wasn't until 1927 that he partnered with Frank Bench of the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri. Together they created the Rohwedder Bread Slicer, which not only sliced the bread, but wrapped it too, which kept the bread fresh.

And so, the Chillicothe Baking Company was the first to sell sliced bread in 1928. In 1930, the first commercial machines were used in the US and UK under the Wonderbread brand. And by 1933, over 80% of all bread sold was pre-sliced.

So what are the lessons from this?

  • Don't think "better," think "different": Rohwedder decided to eliminate a manual task rather than improve it. He didn't focus on making it easier to slice bread, he removed the need to slice it at all by selling it pre-sliced! In Selling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith said, "It's fine to do something 15% better until someone else does it 100% different." Or as Henry Ford put it, "If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."
  • Just Do It!: Rohwedder built countless prototypes and persisted for years. He kept moving forward trying different things. Award-winning design firm IDEO calls this "enlightened trial and error." Besides, as Walt Disney said, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."
  • Don't Be Put off by Gaps; Address Them: Instead of being discouraged by the gaps in his product, Rohwedder relentlessly sought to address them, applying the same creativity that he brought to the original invention.
  • Seek More Brainpower: It wasn't until he partnered with Frank Bench that Rohwedder made a significant breakthrough. Organizations can do this by leveraging the collective intelligence of their employees, suppliers, and customers.
  • Embrace Technology: It was Bench's technology that enabled the combination bread slicer and wrapper. Is technology a commodity? Rohwedder and Bench didn't think so. Neither do Apple, Wal-Mart, or Google.

Through these timeless and proven strategies, Otto Rohwedder transformed an entire industry and the consumer lifestyle that continues to this day. In fact, next year will be the 100th anniversary of his first model.