Innovation

The problems with ‘Pipelines’

As trading environments intensifies, slows or tightens, so the pressure to focus more energy, investment and time onto innovation and its lustrous promise inevitably grow. And what signals healthy innovation plans more than a pipeline – packed to the gunnels with new product, packaging or brand ideas; some ready to go, some looser, meeting an unmet need a couple of years from now, others, little more than outline thoughts about the art of the possible, off in the distance.

Yet innovation failure rates are increasing – and the push for ‘the pipeline’ is part of the issue.

To be clear, a well-stocked catalogue of NPD or renovation projects has clear advantages. For the leadership and the staff in the business, it’s engaging, exciting and gives confidence that new-news is coming through. For the brand teams, it is a demonstrable indicator that their charges are in good health. For others, there’s the ‘value’ of the pipeline: the financial projections for the money it will it deliver over the life of the plan: what can I report to the Board? What can I tell the analysts?

But innovation pipelines create false confidence.

First, there are the behavioural issues. The innovation team bust their guts to identify insights, ideate, develop concepts, validate and test. Strong, consumer-led projects are phased in to cover the next few years. The pipeline is filled with its innovation ‘oil’.

And what draws the eyes of the decision makers? Not the project for next year. Nor the one for 18 months out. No, it’s the “game changer”, slated for 4 years away. It is way more exciting. So the process of wrangling and re-analysing takes place; previous agreements are disregarded and the silver bullet is pulled forward. “Stage & Gate” processes are cast aside; project managers gently cough and look away as hitherto unassailable Sales & Operational Planning red lines are politely worked around.  Ignore the additional technical risks; ignore the dislocation to other activities – the biggest, shiniest jewel wins through. And…. it’s quite possibly the right call (at least if it can be delivered safely). If something is motivating the business; if something excites a buyer, then major hurdles are already overcome.

Next, there’s the question of resource deployment. Pipeline thinking means salami slicing and prioritisation. Prioritisation sounds good, but with innovation it’s not what’s really needed. What’s needed is sacrifice. Pipeline thinking is built on allocation of resource, right throughout the chain – teams being briefed on 40% of their time here, 30% there, 20% further out and 10% for fire-fighting; same for investment. Not only is this allocation approach never realistic, more fundamentally it stops the discussion around elimination. Let’s not do this activity at all. Let’s put 0% effort into it. Let’s spend nothing on it. It’s not that it’s a bad idea; in fact it could have lots of possibilities, but this one could be a real disruptor. Big bets – not salami slicing is what’s needed – after all, it’s big bets that smaller, more nimble market entrants and future competitors will be making – they have no other choice than to be bold and single-minded.

Pipelines for CrowsAnd then there’s the tyranny of choice. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the issue for innovation currently is generating too much choice. Think about a typical supermarket today. Do you really want more choice? What we need are better choices. Pipelines drive quantity. What’s needed is quality. Single-minded ideas that meet desires and needs better. That establish a brand’s positioning more powerfully. Simple solutions to the simple problems that so often we ignore or miss in our closeness to our categories.

A pipeline, after all, is a metaphor for continuous flow and supply. That’s not needed for ideas. That’s needed more for insights: finding those illusive springboards to growth. Yet so often, the process of insighting is compartmentalised: ‘we’ll do accompanied shops once a quarter’; ‘we’ll have stimulus sessions twice a year’.  And yes, you can get some useful outputs from it, but essentially insight development is emergent. It is always on: being curious; poking around; asking questions. That’s where a pipeline is needed.

If insight needs a pipeline, innovation needs a refinery: a factory where ideas are refined. A place where focus is given to the raw materials you have at your disposal. A place where you choose to make different products suitable for your needs. At some point with innovation, you need to get everyone round the table, everyone who has skin in the game, distil the ideas you have and thrash stuff out. Make calls. Kill ideas. Not prioritise. Not fill a pipeline – eliminate. Ask: what are we going to back here?  What’s good, but not good enough? What’s risky – or stretching – but could change the rules for the category?

If you can credibly bring more than one ideas to market, plan them based on when you can actually get them to market not on some hypothetical timing. Build in some red lines. Avoid the false confidence.  Step back and look at the world as a consumer sees it. We’re seeing the outputs of pipelines polluting categories in a slick of OK product choices. It’s time to stop. Build a refinery and make big, bold bets on the real problems your consumers face day to day.

 

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands build foundations of stone.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260.   You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd). 

© The Crow Flies, 2017

Increasing your chances of innovation success

There are sticky myths surrounding innovation. Take success rate. Only 7 out of 10 launches work. Or is it 80%? 50%? Brand extensions. They always weaken a brand, right? Wrong?

Slide1Ultimately what is generally agreed is that innovation is for poker players. There are high rewards possible and they only come with high risks. But you will certainly earn nothing if you don’t put any chips down. Honestly, I don’t know whether 1 in 7 launches work or 3 in 17. What matters is understanding what we can do to increase our chances of success.

Over the past two years, our business has been taking developing a fresh perspective on this very question, looking at our own client practice, published case studies and primary research with innovation practitioners. Interestingly, before we even consider where to innovate or on what there are two foundations – cornerstones that determine the success of everything else that innovative businesses attempt.

The first is cultural. What innovation will the business permit? This seems an odd question but we’ve found a clear gap between what is said and what is done. Innovation enjoys its fair share of grand pronouncements (‘We will reinvent the future of our category’, ‘Innovation will become our DNA’), but what really matters is what gets approved when the rubber hits the road. Many publicly listed companies need to innovate for the long-term, for example, fundamentally changing the way they work, or strengthening their core brands. These are not overnight tasks by any means, but they struggle to do so in an environment where shareholders and analysts are breathing down their necks for instant success. The Board transmit this short-termism through the business whether they realise it or not. It’s not to say that businesses such as these can’t innovate, nor that the innovation can be successful – it’s just that the strike rate of success will likely be low and potentially the really thorny, knotty challenges won’t be faced up to. Innovation therefore must strike the balance between long and short-term needs.

The second foundation is direction. If the company’s purpose and it’s values don’t allow for, or perhaps it’s better to say, inspire innovative ideas, innovative behaviour and allow for the diversity of thought, style and personality involved to be innovative, then the chances of success reduce again. The tell tale signs are whether innovation naturally flows out of the company’s purpose – not the vision, nor the goals, but the purpose – that ‘why we get out of bed in the morning’ sense of being that high performing businesses work off. If innovation is just a ‘tool’ for delivering a gap in the plan – beware.

And it’s easy to write about these foundations, much harder to put them in place. They are fundamental though – and by definition therefore they are big beasts to wrestle to the ground. But wrestle them you must.

Only then, it is possible to start innovating. And where to start?

What our research has shown is that – somewhat counter intuitively – the place to start is the core of your business. Oh, I’ll grant you, it’s not a sexy as doing crazy new stuff but here’s the thing – innovation is about balancing short and long-term. The core is more short-term and this has some advantages. What you do will be on an existing brand so the chances of creating some impact and momentum are higher. The core is 80% of what you do: your staff will therefore understand why you are doing it more and feel the need. And critically, it buys you time and space to work on the ‘other stuff’. But it doesn’t mean do anything to the core. The question should be, ‘how can I make the core of my business feel contemporary, cared about and vibrant?’ This means investigating your target consumers’ unmet needs in-depth; it means drilling into adjacent product territories or areas your competitors are naturally strong and most critically it means dramatising the existing brand positioning through your innovation effort. A brand that does this superbly is Coors Light – a top 5 beer brand worldwide. Everything it does communicates the global positioning of cold Rocky Mountain refreshment. In every market where the brand is on sale, you’ll see innovation (and brand activity) bringing to life the coldness of the brand through innovations like temperature sensitive ink from the ‘Blue Train’ in the US to Damme Cold in the UK. And they do this relentlessly, year in year out. The most innovative idea? No. But an idea that impacts the core of their business.

Then businesses can focus on the really new – the 20% today which will be the 80% of tomorrow. Here the questions are about large segments we’re not in but could credibly compete, or transitional trends (trends that are becoming mainstream) – or even unlocking the potential in unloved assets by repurposing them …. as well as, of course, inventing. When we asked our clients and practitioners about innovation, it’s this effort that seems to define innovation overall (the crazy new stuff). Importantly though, the successful innovation companies also recognise that this takes less of the focus, effort and resource but is protected nonetheless.

The Crow Flies now offers one-day stimulus sessions on how businesses can increase their chances of innovation success, which build on the principles and findings here. It would be great to hear from you if you find yourself wrestling (or not wrestling) with some of the big issues at play.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Why I’m Going To The Garden Centre For A Pint

How inward focused insight can kill innovation: what all brand builders can learn from managed pubs

Last week I took my family to a local pub which had just re-opened following significant investment. We were excited to see what changes had been made, how the money had been spent and the offer improved. We speculated en route, talking about the simple, obvious changes they would have made to improve the experience: a gate to prevent younger children from running out of the play area and straight on to the main road, a larger restaurant area, the development of the beer garden as a place to relax in the summer months. Maybe, given the number of very similar competitor businesses in the area, they would have gone further and taken the chance to differentiate and premiumise their offer: they might have invested in a pizza oven, added more natural and healthy options to the menu or improved the entertainment available to children – there was so much scope to enhance the offer and we couldn’t wait to see how the experience had been improved.

Unfortunately it hadn’t. Instead the investment and four week refurbishment had been spent in making it look even more like every other pub in the area. You know the look – most managed pubs look the same – a sort of toned down version of how trendy Shoreditch bars looked 5 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, it looks good. Pubs need ‘freshening up’ and my issue is not with the choice of furnishings. What frustrates me is what sits behind the decision: the issue that too many marketing strategies are being built on the wrong insight.

This issue is not limited to managed pubs. Indeed, some managed pubs get it beautifully right. The Revolution vodka bars are a brilliant example of a differentiated brand proposition, with a singular thought and focus which brought something new to the high street. The issue is that too many competitors now only look at what Revolution are doing to fuel their own offer development. What’s more, the problem is spreading. When you’re in your local managed pub, have a look at the drink brands ‘extending’ in to the spirit beer and cider categories and, if you fancy a challenge, try and work out what they’re bringing to the party that is truly different or better. If you’re struggling, order yourself a pulled pork burger while you think. It’ll be on the menu because it’s on everyone else’s.

Innovation, (and I use it to mean the development of the offer, be that a retail refurbishment, menu development, FMCG product extension or NPD), needs to start with the right insight and that rarely comes from looking only at what your competitors are already doing. It is well documented that pubs have been closing at an alarming rate and there are many reasons for this including the cost of labour, duty rates, macro consumer trends around wellbeing and so on. However, it is worth adding to the list that the industry has been too introspective, that the offer has not developed far enough and so consumers have voted with their feet.

Garden CentresWhere are they going? To the garden centre of course, a strange but relevant parallel. You can buy almost all gardening equipment more cheaply on line and a good range of plants from your local supermarket or DIY store, just as most drinks are almost identical but a third of the cost if bought from the off-trade. However, where pubs are shutting, the garden centre industry is thriving and is  forecast to continue to grow through to 2020. The reason? Their offer has evolved through external insight. They realised that they were competing with cafés, theme parks, shopping centres and, of course, pubs, for people’s leisure time and so they developed and differentiated their offer. When you go to a garden centre, the plant might cost more but you’ll be helped to pick the right species and told where to plant it. As a result, it will grow and so you’ll go back. Furthermore, when you return, you can shop in the craft store, take in a drink at the cafe, order a summerhouse, furnish it and, at Christmas, you’ll probably find one of the best Santa’s Grottos outside of Disneyland. And here’s the frustration – there is a much better place for that Grotto to be. A place where you could sit and wait for your turn in warm comfort, whilst enjoying a meal. A place that should be the beating heart of the community – your local family pub. But instead, they’re trying to sell you craft beer and pulled pork.

Doing things differently doesn’t need to cost more. It’s about choosing more carefully where to invest both time and money. My local pub could have committed to staff training and updated their range to offer food and drink discovery for the family. They could have spruced up the beer garden to create the optimal outdoor child-friendly space for the summer. They could, at the very least, have put a gate on to the main road to make the children’s play area safer.

So let’s step off the band wagon before it runs over a child or at the very least, before it leads to further poor strategy and ill thought through investment. Marketeers need not beat themselves up about it – nobody can reasonably be an expert in one category, immersed within their own business and simultaneously have the objectivity to look beyond it. However, look beyond it we must or the offer development that results will continue to disappoint.

At The Crow Flies, we help businesses to research, plan and develop compelling brand strategies and innovation pipelines – a process which starts with finding the right insights. If you have a brand or innovation challenge and would like some fresh thinking, give us a call – we’ll be in the garden centre having a pint.

Rob Parker is a Partner at The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for brands and businesses. rob@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016

Time and brand planning wait for no man

On the news the other day, there was a report about two American sailors who have to be rescued 9 times by various coastal rescue services – just on their journey from Norway to Cornwall. They still have their trans-Atlantic crossing to make in a boat, ‘Nora’ that looks clinker built and is, well ‘romantic’ more than seaworthy. At the same time and on a seemingly unrelated path, I have been wrestling with a recurring challenge on innovation projects: why do great ideas get ditched so quickly?

The analogy of an ocean storm is what draws the comparison here. The ‘storm’ is the annual round of business and brand planning. Like a Force 12 storm blowing in, it approaches fast; it swirls and blows – disrupting normal events; the waves are big, awe-inspiring in fact and it demands immediate action.

If a brand plan is a good one, out of this maelstrom come the annual action plans, innovation being one of them. Teams set off, get briefs written and engage various partners. Insights are articulated and challenges expressed. Ideas are generated and validation kicks in. Yet, more often than not both client and agency are left disappointed: clients because the ideas aren’t ‘breakthrough’; agencies because the great ideas get left behind.  Why? There seem to be a number of recurring themes.

The ideas generated in the here and now always seem the best – they’re owned by that team; they have a senior sponsor (or perhaps originator), they seem fresh and new. But newness doesn’t make them the best ideas nor the right ones to move the business forward. Just as it’s important to test your ideas vs a competitive control, so you should also test your ideas against existing ones. Are we moving forward? Are we taking learnings and applying them for better results?

Breaker.jpgAn idea’s support and sponsorship is fleeting – there’s a purple patch for ideas. You love it; you present it with passion; you engage the Board, everyone’s excited. But depending on how you go about taking innovation forward, it can quickly wane. Rounds of iterative fettling; focus groups and quantitative testing if lingered over can sap the momentum. It’s important to be single minded, test and verify with urgency and get on with it. If you lose the momentum, whilst the idea may, in consumers’ eyes, still be a good one, you’ve probably lost the battle internally.

Great ideas don’t just spring out at brand planning time – we’re increasingly realising that great ideas are a jigsaw – a jigsaw of structured planning at a point in time, constant curiosity and spontaneous creativity. Put it this way: you are less likely to be successful if you set up an old meeting room with a few fairy lights and post-it notes than if you think about your physical environment for innovating all year round. More than anything else: capture thoughts and ideas whenever they arise and display them. Ideas attract interest like moths to a flame, but only if the flame burns brightly.

It’s never now or never – the market opportunity may be now or may be in the future, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell where you are with an emerging trend. Keep the ideas from the past and don’t be afraid to dust them off, tweak them and put them to consumers again. (And yes, a ‘Three Strikes And Out’ rule is sensible, but only over the course of years, not months).

Fine ideas are like fine wine –young white wine you may think is best with fish, but a bit of age and you realise it’s sublime with chicken. So too with ideas – and the insights behind them. New ideas can be a bit rough and ready whereas some time, some thought applied, some prototyping can put a sharp point on your idea. Think about how you nurture and protect ideas with potential beyond the one year window.

Like a big ocean storm, if a concept doesn’t make it through in time, then the next wave swamps it, even if it is a crackling idea. And this push, this desire for short-term winners means we risk losing the wild cards and the potential higher risk but high reward game-changers.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260

© The Crow Flies, 2016