Product Development: Finding the Right Path

KCMN’s March meeting featured three speakers who shared their company’s path from innovation to revenue for new product development.  The consensus shared by all three speakers is that there is no ‘one path’ to success.  However, there were some key themes that emerged during the discussion:

Get the whole company involved.  Drew Lericos from Robbie Manufacturing follows a stage gate process that includes a development team from diverse areas of the company, from sales, marketing, production, procurement and human resources where all have input throughout the process.  Jason Grove from Dimensional Innovations discussed their internal process innovation team who works in parallel with the manufacturing team to develop new products as well as custom projects.  While Steve Hall from Boelte-Hall noted that they are less formal in their process, all functional areas are responsible for continual innovation, as they operate in a rapidly changing market, where their top customers are buying products and services that were not even offered by the company 3 years ago.

Make your message consistent. A real challenge to the process of product development is finding the balance between encouraging enthusiasm from all areas of the company and making sure that customers aren’t getting confusing messages, and competitors aren’t getting a front row seat to your new strategy.  Boelte-Hall uses a color coding system to note confidential projects to all employees.  All three companies noted it’s important to make sure that the sales force is educated/trained on the new products, and can learn to approach different buyers within the same company.  The key to getting sales staff on board is for one or two sales people attaining success with a new product or market, which then helps the rest of the team realize that they too need to get on board or miss the boat.  Overall, internal marketing is just as important as external marketing.

Expect flexibility in the budgeting process.  Regardless of the process used, knowing the true cost for a product development process can be a challenge.  There are specific costs, such as equipment purchases, education and training, product development personnel time and raw materials.  It is more difficult to measure the opportunity cost, of time spent on one product when there are competing priorities for everyone’s attention.  Something that is projected to have 3 trials may end up needing 8.  However, there are federal R & D tax credits available, so documenting and tracking costs is an important part of the process.

Listen to your customers – sometimes.  While getting customer input throughout the process is important, it is also important to think about unmet needs that customers may not be telling you about.   Robbie has found success by taking a product that solves a problem in one area, that can also be used to solve a different customer problem with minor changes.  Steve Hall from Boelte-Hall noted that conversations with customers indicated they had no interest in a new process Boelte was considering. Boelte-Hall invested anyway and now those same customers buy products using that process on a daily basis.  While all 3 companies vary in their depth of research, they all agree that some level of customer and market research are important to guiding the both the decision to move forward, and the changes that need to be made along the way.  The key is to focus on solutions, vs. preferences.

Failure is an option.  Some product introductions may not meet expectations.  Drew Lericos from Robbie noted, “if your culture does not permit failure, you will not succeed at innovation”.  Jason Grove from Dimensional Innovations said they try to use the “fail fast, fail cheap” mantra to guide their process in order to try new developments with a smaller scale vs going company wide all at once. Steve Hall noted “Every one of our successful innovations had an element of failure somewhere in its development.” When things do not work out, it’s important to look at what areas can be improved the next time around so mistakes are not repeated.

Don’t give up too early. Lastly, Steve Hall reminded the audience not to give up too early.  In some cases minor changes can make a doomed project viable.  In other cases, it makes sense to consider timing in the marketplace.  An innovation that was not successful one year may be resurrected as market conditions shift in the future.