So, you want to develop new products for your business. Where are you going to start? How do you generate ideas and identify potential new business opportunities, either with potential now and/or for the future? How do you generate a list of ideas and develop them into potential projects and assess which ones are worthwhile for the business to resource?
I have worked in businesses in the past where all eyes seemed to look to the technology team to come up with some ground-breaking, disruptive technology or product that is going to change the face of the industry and make massive profits for the business. It always puzzled me that people often seem to think that ideas for new products should come from the technologists. For me, technologists are the people that make the idea into reality, but the potential opportunity has to come first from talking with your customers, understanding their needs, their challenges, understanding your markets and where they are headed.
All of this is a business development challenge, not a technology one, and if you want to create a list of potential new product ideas, customers and markets are where you need to start. But before approaching customers to identify new opportunities, you need to prepare by referring to your business strategy, to give you some guidance about what markets to focus on, and hence which customers you should be talking to. This should also give you an indication of the size of new business pipeline you should be generating in order to achieve the growth targets in the strategy (balanced against growth by selling more existing products and/or growth by acquisition), which in turn will give you some idea about how many and what size of potential opportunities you need to be generating. Starting with your business strategy, understanding your markets and interacting with your customers must form the foundation of your idea generation to identify new product and new business opportunities. But how you do this can come in many forms, and there are multiple directions from which ideas can and do come.
Internal Sources of Ideas
Internal Sales Reports – distributing monthly summaries of sales reports can be an excellent way of sparking ideas and promoting dialogue between those on the distribution list.
New Business Project and Portfolio Reviews – this is a helicopter view and internal review of what’s going on in your new business development pipeline and new product development project portfolios. With technology based development activities, it is amazing how often there are multiple spin offs from one project into another and from one project creating opportunities for several other projects. All great sources of seeking future possibilities but all need managing and holding up against the business strategy. It’s easy to get carried away with such internal idea generation as it creates a lot of energy about what is possible in your business and is often the origin of people creating their own pet projects. I have worked in businesses where there is so much internal idea generation, so many opportunities, that it almost negated the need to go and talk to customers, because we already had more than enough ideas to keep us busy. This is a very dangerous situation to find yourself in. Another benefit that can come out of helicopter view reviews is that you can see similar activities going on in different parts of your business, so you may have a team in China working on something that is similar to something being worked on by a team in South America. This way you can pool resources, compare notes, and usually extend your opportunity list. This is particularly easy to do when you have all your project portfolio on a CRM or other form of database.
Technology Roadmaps – these can come in several formats and are an excellent way to understand the trends happening in your market and generate potential opportunities from them. By far the best format I have used is a Market-Led Roadmap process, which is essentially Crystal Ball gazing into the direction your markets are heading and what you should be doing now to prepare to capture the future market opportunities. One of my customers summed this up excellently when he described this process as ‘Reverse Engineering the Future’. I have found this to be the best internal source of generating new product opportunities as it is focused on target markets, and uses a tried and tested process to guide the team to realistic, well documented outputs that feed into your business development process.
Brainstorming Events – these are usually focused on a certain topic (application, market, technical problem, etc.) and need skilled facilitation and a robust process to produce useful output.
External Sources of Ideas
Technology Scanning – there is a lot of literature out there on your technical subjects and the markets you serve, but it can feel like a full time job keeping up with it all. At the beginning of my career, this was all about printed media; published journals and technical trade magazines. So the data sources were fewer but it took real effort to get hold of them. These days of course, with the internet, you don’t have to leave your office to be connected to all the digital versions of technical journals, trade magazines, company websites, social media announcements, blogs, etc. It helps to set up alerts on your laptop to keep scanning for keyword subjects, but beyond this, it is still a very time consuming activity trying to keep up with all that goes on in your field.
Intellectual Property Scanning – IP scanning is a challenging and time consuming area. There are plenty of databases and services to go to that allow you to search IP databases regionally and globally for key words relevant to your technology, applications, customers, competitors, etc., but this usually generates an enormous amount of data, hundreds or thousands of lists of patents, depending on how you target your keywords and how wide you want to cast your net. There is always the concern that if you don’t have a broad approach, then you might miss something important. But a broad search gives you so much data that it becomes extremely difficult to do anything with it. Another significant challenge with IP scanning is that patents are written in their own style of patent attorney language, and sometimes in a way to avoid appearing on keyword searches, so you have to give a lot of thought to your search criteria. IP scanning is best done in a targeted way such that you generate a more manageable quantity of information. It helps these days that national patent laws are becoming increasingly joined up internationally with the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), giving easier access to overseas patents, but in the end you still have the challenge of language anyway, if you want to see what is happening in China or Japan. IP scanning is another classic situation where it is frequently given as a task to a junior person, or someone in a marketing role, neither of whom usually have the expertise in the target subject, such that these people come back armed with their search results and say, here you are, job done. But this is just part 1 of the job, the 2nd most important part is analysing these data, summarising and interpreting the information. This is a difficult task that takes a person very experienced in the subject to do effectively. Without this, your IP search can just be a waste of time.
Market Intelligence – discussions with market experts and reviews of published reports covering your target markets. Such information should feed into your Technology Roadmap program.
Trade Shows and Exhibitions – you’ll never have so many potential contacts standing in the same room than at a trade show or conference, so work the floor.
Industry Working Groups – such as standards committees, conference organising committees or trade organisations, be they formal or informal networking organisations.
Competitive Analysis/Intelligence – there are multiple ways to keep up with what is going on with your competitors, such as web sites, announcements, booths at trade shows, market gossip, etc. But like many other large sources of data, these can just end up as a random pile of information thrown together in a company intranet. For me, this is only Part 1 of the task. Part 2, to make it useful to people, is to collate the data into a structured report with interpretation. This is often missing in a company because it is an ‘and’ job that nobody is tasked to do, but without it you will get little value from the gathering of the information in the first place.
Direct Contacts – including face to face conversations with customers, or via Email or phone calls. This is by far the best external source of ideas for new product opportunities.
Voice of Customer Exercises – you should as a business be holding regular ‘Voice of Customer’ exercises with key customers, as it allows you to get behind the random conversations and feedback that may or may not generate useful information and employ a managed approach to asking the questions you really want the answers to, for all aspects of doing business (not just their new product needs).
Personally, I have never really found it difficult to generate ideas in any business I have worked in. Lots of people have ideas in your organisation, if you only ask them, you just need to encourage them to speak up. They will usually be good ideas from something they’ve seen or spoken about at a customer, but it’s usually a very specific idea. The task then is to find out if this idea is applicable to more than one customer, but normally the idea generator is not motivated to follow this up or contribute. They feel they have done their job by coming up with the idea and that it’s someone else’s job to do something with it. This is quite an issue to deal with as people can get disgruntled if you don’t do something with their ideas or you prove there is no wider market for it and it doesn’t get worked on. This can cause people to stop bringing ideas forward, as they feel it’s not worth bothering coming up with more ideas because they never go anywhere. And this is not unrealistic, because most ideas do not make it to a project or to a new product, they get filtered out early on. This must be tackled by educating those involved in the process of ‘Transforming Technology into Profit,’ so that they gain the perspective to appreciate where their idea fits into the process.
It is a huge amount of work to keep on top of all these sources of new ideas, and if you’re on top of even a few of these, then you will likely be generating very long lists of potential ideas for new opportunities. The task then is to develop a process for filtering the ideas and selecting those with the best commercial potential for your business. The best ideas should then be expanded into full business proposals for review and go forward for a decision on whether to fund them as R&D/new business development projects. Good luck with all your new ideas!