Dear 80/20 Mentor,

My organization has been so focused on managing costs, retaining key employees, protecting our relationships with customers, and overcoming supply chain havoc that we’ve lost momentum on NPD. Our New Product Development pipeline has gaps and is generally weak. How can my organization rebuild/reboot a robust NPD funnel and quickly launch new products?




Dear Under-Developed,

New product development pipeline gaps are problematic and all too common, even in the best of times. When the issue is ultimately recognized and addressed, the reaction is often just this: how do we rebuild the NPD pipeline and QUICKLY launch new products?

Therein lies the first caution: haste makes waste.

It's not hard, really, to quickly launch new products. It is, however, incredibly hard to quickly launch SUCCESSFUL new products, and those who try often end up spending a lot and getting little—if anything—for it. So, tip number one: take your time. Use 80/20: make fewer bets and make them good bets. The quality of the funnel is way more important than the size of the funnel.

So, how do we create a neat, tight, high-quality funnel?

There are many fine methods, but my favorite is ethnographic research—or as I like to call it, "Go to Gemba.” Go into the field, where the end users are using your products (and those of your competitors) and observe. Go See. Ask “Why?” Document it.

In doing this, by observing people using products to solve problems, we learn about the shortcomings of those products. Specifically, we learn about users’ unarticulated needs like the "workarounds" that people use to overcome the design flaws that we, the designers, don't even realize are there. Usually, the end-users don’t even realize that the product could be better—they accept the design and all its flaws as “the way it is.” Those unarticulated needs are a gold mine of innovation opportunities.

Take, for example, today’s typical baby strollers: these lightweight chariots come equipped with cupholders, storage, baby trays, power one-handed steering, and easy disassembly for storage. This modern stroller came from ethnographic research. The product team went to Gemba, targeting the primary user/decision-maker: mothers. They watched mothers with the old-fashioned “seat on wheels” strollers struggle to push a stroller and grocery shop; they watched them struggle to hold their purses and diaper bags, coffee, and groceries all while pushing a toddler who left a trail of Goldfish she’d try to clean up too. She’d come to the car and the process of getting the stroller into the car took more than three minutes and involved a lot of physical straining and frustration. It was a balancing act with no solution on the market. Users had real needs but couldn’t articulate the solution we have today because it didn’t exist, couldn’t be imagined, and the old version was accepted as standard. Once the multifunctional stroller with safety/comfort/convenience features for babies AND parents hit the market? Sales exploded, along with the entire product category.

The takeaway? Don't solve the “My NPD funnel is weak” problem. Solve the users’ problems, and you'll never have an NPD problem again.

Of course, we need to study that gold mine, to make certain that the vein runs deep. Answering a few key questions is essential, none more important than:

  1. How big is the market?
  2. Is the market growing? By how much?
  3. Who currently controls the market and why?

This effort to understand the market niches we focus on, and to "Go to Gemba" to truly understand what the new products must deliver in benefits to drive the features and functionality being takes a lot of work. You'll study a lot of possibilities at the surface, to whittle down the number of deep dives to take. But, done this way, many of those deep dives will pay off.

In short, it's truly 80/20.'s not the size of the funnel, it's the quality that matters. Fewer, better, better-understood opportunities will create the NPD results all companies need.

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