Thank You For This Great New Product Idea. Now What?

It is a well-known fact that new ideas come from your customers, partners, analysts, competitors and other industry influencers. Like it or not, your company looks upon the product management organization to organize these ideas.

But how can a very busy product manager transform the “idea machine” into a fast, fair and simple, yet transparent process?

Remember this bright engineer who came to you last week with starry eyes and started the conversation with “wouldn’t it be great if we had a product that…”?

Chances are that if after a few weeks she does not feel you are taking her idea somewhere, she will share her future creative ideas with someone else.

This post will not provide a turnkey solution to such a process, as every company is different. It will, however, help you group and select ideas using a consistent framework that does not let your legacy products and company limitations get in the way of your thinking. In addition, the framework may help explain to that engineer why her idea needs to be further refined.

The framework consists in three principles:

1.All ideas must be aimed at solving a specific business problem. First it allows you to gather ideas around a customer-centric theme. Second it forces you to step down and look at what is truly needed, versus a your-product-should-let-me-do-this” type of input. Do not limit yourselves to your existing customers, as the new concept may also attract a different segment of customers

2.It is important to envision solutions to the problem as a “business system” that includes not only a possible new product, but also specific sales channels, support, implementation, training and services.  Granted, you most likely will never need a separate organization to serve this new idea, but at least you need to investigate what is specifically required to address the problem without the limits imposed by your company.

3.All ideas must go through the same set of questions in order to be qualified and further refined. This is what ensures consistency and transparency.

Let’s examine this last step in further detail. I usually stick to 20 questions, 10 for outside (customers, analysts, influencers) and 10 for inside the company. The reason is that you essentially want to assess the business problem, look at your company’s capabilities and see if the mixture is a good fit. It is tempting to add as many questions as possible to the list, but remember, we want this process to be fast and simple. These questions can of course be adapted to your circumstances. Finally, the order of these questions was set to evidence red flags as early as possible.

Outside:

–    Is the problem formulated correctly or is its definition too restrictive? A restrictive problem definition could make you miss an larger opportunity or waste your resources.

–    Which actor is feeling the pain? . Who do you need to sell to? (no one at this point, my buyer, someone else? ) The answer to this question may impact the duration your sales cycle as well as what sales channel is required.

–    Is the business problem pervasive in this industry? In other industries? Is this a one-customer issue or is this problem felt by a larger group?

–    What is the best possible way anyone could solve this issue in the eyes of the customer?You need to get away from the “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” philosophy and think like an entrepreneur starting with a clean slate.

–    Would that solution require an organizational or process change for the customer and would they eventually agree to make it? If a new product requires too much change in order to be accepted by the customer, it could slow the adoption of the product or the new product may be flat-out rejected.

–    Is the pain felt by the customer likely to get worse in the near to medium term? If the problem becomes more acute, then time is working for you. Nice to know.

–    Could a solution be sold up-market or down-market? In other words is this problem likely to be felt by more demanding, or less demanding segments, each with different price points?

–    Could a substitute help solve this business problem? Reaching out to outside the company is important here to identify unorthodox potential solutions to this business problem which your company may not have thought about and would negatively impact your efforts.

–    Can the problem be quantified in terms of lost revenue, productivity or customer satisfaction? While it is impossible to identify the revenue opportunity of a market which does not exist yet, it may be possible to quantify the savings that a solution may generate, to help customers justify their decision, and you to estimate a first-cut price point.

–    How much would the customer be willing to pay for a solution? Remember that this customer may not be your existing customer.

Inside:

–    Is there any certain indication at this point that the solution envisioned would be considered attractive? Think ROI, margin, volumes, but also market share, new markets, barriers to exit.

–    Would the best possible way to solve this issue involve an existing or a disruptive solution? A disruptive technology may involve a different sales cycle, lower margins, more risk, and a different launch plan. You need to acknowledge this right off the bat.

–    What is the extent of internal organizational changes required to best fill this customer need? Does your company own the appropriate skill set, would management be willing to accept a lower cost structure, what is the latitude to adapt the sales channels? How open is your organization to process changes required to accommodate a new product?

–    Can a solution be completed in-house or would a partnership be required? Granted, with enough resources, your company can go at it alone, but would a partner facilitate market entry and share the risk?

–    What is the likelihood of finding a corporate sponsor willing to fight for the solution internally? Let’s face it, only lucky product managers or geniuses get it right the first time. Anyone working on a new idea requires air cover to defend it against “resource realignments” and also to set the correct expectations with executives. No one can go at it alone.

–    Does the solution envisioned fit with my company’s strategy? Is it OK to find many small ponds for an existing product or a large pond with a new one? Can you make your idea fit with one or several existing business objectives?

–    Can the problem be solved by offering a new solution recombining existing products or services? If you fail, it is better to do it early and cheaply. A first try with existing technology can help you achieve that.

–    Is a solution for this problem included in my existing product’s roadmap? If yes, do you need to reconsider the timing? If no, what should be taken off to accommodate a potential new effort?

–    What is the likelihood that my company will execute in a quality and in a timely fashion? Execution is key. What is the impact of the idea which you are considering coming to the market late or with a smaller set of benefits?

–    What would be the competition’s response to a move? Could this idea already be on any of your competitor’s radar screen? Is there another company out there who could have its eyes on the same opportunity?

This set of questions can and should be modified to your environment. Also, most of the answers are not black and white; you may need a sliding scale to account for the various shades of gray. Finally please remember Henry Ford’s famous quote: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”.