Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Health warning: “Inhaling your own exhaust fumes may cause brain damage”.

Health warning: “Inhaling your own exhaust fumes may cause brain damage”.

Probably because self confidence is such a vital ingredient for successful new product development it sometimes also becomes particularly vital to guard against the dangers that can accompany excessive self-confidence in our innovation

Those dangers exist because the success of any innovation and product development is ultimately judged by users and customers and not by the core development team or by the founding inventor. And those dangers surface when, head down and focusing on the end game, our connection with the customer begins to slide into an aging and optimistic set of assumptions.

Unfortunately the slide is often imperceptible. Confidence underpins the crucial motivation that we all needed to drive forward with that new product or service concept. The confidence to keep on fighting becomes internalised as the team (or the individual inventor) identify with, and increasingly grow to “own”, this new development. Personal interpretations, values and paradigms are inevitably used to shape the new concept. Meanwhile, as the link between the concept and its development team becomes more personal, the voice of the customer can become marginalised and disengaged.

So how to avoid breathing the exhaust fumes of your own development machine? A framework I’ve found particularly useful to avoid this trap is offered by George Kembel. The suggestion I’ve found useful is to fundamentally base your development on empathy for the target customer. It simply means that as we drive our development machine through each process stage, empathy must define “what” we are developing. Our own competencies dictate “how” we realise the new product or service and our business models dictate “why” we pursue this opportunity rather than any other innovation. It means our fighting self-confidence needs to be directed and not simply become a total state of mind.

The metaphor of riding a motorbike works for me. If we spend all our time focused on making the gear changes and watching the instruments we’ll inevitably crash because the road demands that we look upwards and outwards. The successful innovation process is not closed, rather it needs to remain open to external customer forces that can show us where to head. If the bike’s gear box means we cant just go straight up the hill, we need to find other ways of reaching the same destination but the destination needs to remain something that is externally defined.

The value of empathy will remain obvious while we keep away from our own exhaust fumes.

I hope this provides at least some small contribution to help the cause of better innovation.

I’m interested in feedback and views to help achieve better product development. Please contact me to share your views and thoughts.