Running an innovation process – Part 5: Manage a portfolio of ideas, good and bad

Let’s say I work in a large international consumer packaged goods company and a few formats have been tried for new deodorants. The Australian team comes up with an idea for cat deodorants. Sounds crazy? Well, there are a lot of pet lovers out there with smelly felines and significant disposable income. And so the idea is tried and it fails. The product doesn’t sell. What should happen next?

All too often the corporate instinct is that the idea should be kept secret. When development first starts, the desire is to protect our ground-breaking innovation. As we proceed and start to see the results of the trials, early sales and so on, we decide numbers should be kept to the product team – others wouldn’t understand the various subtle nuances. And then the project fails and the product line is discontinued, and nobody wants to talk about it.

The value in ‘failed’ innovation

What’s the problem here? As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.[1] And so, in a few months, across the other side of the world, the team in the UK spend a lot of time thinking about cat-odour-related products. Or someone back in Australia office spends time researching a dog breath product; ‘Stinkies’. A lot more wasted time, finding out the same things again and again.

But that is only half the problem. Ask around the Australian team about what happens with new ideas. What will you hear? ‘We often start on things, but then it normally goes quiet’; ‘Lots of brainstorms, but nothing ever really comes of it’. Why is it that we think that our otherwise intelligent members of staff are unable to deal with the concept that we tried something and it didn’t work out? Why are we afraid to go back to them to tell them we valued their thinking, but it didn’t work out on this occasion?

Share experiences, the good and the bad

So we should keep a log of all the ideas we have tried and share it with anyone who is interested. It should be as detailed as possible in terms of describing what happened, and who to talk to if you want to find out more. Should we spend as much time on products that didn’t work? In fact, we can afford to spend more, since the products that succeed will be known about anyway and don’t need to be explained.  What about the experiments that produced negative outcomes for the product’s success? Share those too, and give hope to the next generation of product developers. Let them see that the road to a successful project is rarely free from obstacle and setbacks.

And what if another team has tried your idea before and failed to make it work? Does that mean you shouldn’t give it a go? Not at all. But it will give you some pretty big questions to challenge. If you are to succeed, where they failed, you will need to be able to work out why. Perhaps Minty Dog biscuits will work only in the Middle East. Or perhaps you have found a whole new way of selling smelly-kitten-trousers to the OAP market. It doesn’t matter what it is, but if you can save time, with research already done, you can invest more in removing the assumptions which have not yet been addressed.

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Missed part 1-4, check them out here…

  1. Running an Innovation Process – Part 1: How to set up the project right internally
  2. Running an Innovation Process – Part 2: Strategy and Context: Where do you start?
  3. Running an Innovation Process – Part 3: Building belief 
  4. Running an Innovation Process – Part 4: Create Valuable Ideas