Disruption of markets worldwide has proven that speed is an important attribute of strong innovators. Companies that aren’t optimized for speed often don’t generate the returns on innovation and product development that they’re looking for; in fact, 42% of global innovation executives believe their development times are too long and cite it as the largest barrier to success. Companies that are built for speed can react quickly to changing preferences and competitors’ moves in the market, manifesting in greater potential to boost top and bottom lines. 

We all want to be the first to market, but no one wants to burn gas on an idling project — nor have an explosion. Finding a middle ground between running slowly and “pouring gasoline” on the problem is integral to optimizing the existing resources that you have. Here are six affordable steps you and your team can take tomorrow to accelerate your time to market:

1. Clearly frame the objective and guardrails 

Framing facilitates decision-making and helps to align broader teams, build confidence, and make decisions with leadership.

Einstein said it best: “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it”. So, do an audit on your strategy – if you can’t answer these 4 questions, meet with senior leaders to determine the answers:

    1. Why does this innovation team exist?
    2. Who is responsible for its success or failure?
    3. What results are we supposed to be driving for the business? How will we know when we have achieved those results?
    4. What incentive does the business have to work with us?

After months of being stalled, one corporate innovator in a major CPG firm revisited some core questions about their strategy and pivoted to a new decision-making framework. Because of it, the funding and leadership buy-in process accelerated substantially:  “I need 100% commitment from the business upfront. I would ask them a question. ‘Is this in your long-range plan? Are you making promises to senior management about getting this done?’ They would say, ‘No.’ And I would say, ‘OK, I’m not starting the project.’

2. Get customer input on your prototype

It’s easy to wait for new products to be perfected and design an elaborate launch before you start to collect feedback from customers. However, gaining feedback from your customers early in your product’s development stages will limit the waste in going down unproductive paths. While a conference room is great for brainstorming your ideas, the market is the best place to validate them.

Share your prototype to 10 of your customers to hear their take on it. Worry less about the imperfections that you know exist, and focus on gaining insights directly from customers. Whatever you do, fight the urge to sell during this conversation; rather, listening to their likes, dislikes, wishes, and questions around your product will help you iterate and accelerate the project. 

Pfizer boosted lackluster sales for Nicorette by going out and speaking directly with their target customer, 25-35 year old smokers, and having them react to stimulus and prototypes. They pivoted their value proposition after realizing that this group believed smoking was a social choice, and that consumers care more about choosing the right time to quit versus simply curbing their addiction. This insight was the anchor that allowed Pfizer to revitalize the brand. 

While sharing a half-baked prototype with customers runs counter to most entrenched corporate cultures, it will pay dividends to learn quickly and iterate, thereby limiting the waste of going down unproductive paths. 

3. Sharpen your focus on the things you don’t know most. 

Round up your list of all the assumptions you’re making about your project, or all the things you don’t know but wish you did. What assumptions do you have about your current or potential customer? About your business model, or the feasibility of your idea?

There might be 43 of them. As a group, vote on your top 3-5 assumptions that you are the most unsure about, that put the success of your idea at the most risk. These should be assumptions that, if aren’t true, the other things you don’t know, don’t matter. Tip: start with assumptions around the desirability of your idea, before you move on to answering assumptions regarding the project’s viability and feasibility.

Align your activity around answering these top assumptions. Once those assumptions are answered, re-visit and vote on the next set of assumptions that are riskiest to your success. By using assumptions to guide your learning trajectory, you will help your team focus on the most important thing you can be doing to build this new business.  

4. Get one customer to pay for it. 

Getting a customer to pay for your concept is one of the best ways to test your idea without investing too much time or money on something that people don’t ultimately want. In fact, Kickstarter’s success comes from enabling entrepreneurs to test their ideas and acquire paying customers before they actually have to build anything.

Acquire paying customers by creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) version of your concept and start a pilot. Set the goal of your team to get a small set of paying customers. If customers are paying for a low-fi version of your product or service, that’s a much better indicator of actual customer adoption than someone simply saying “I would buy that” in a lab. 

Once you’ve acquired a small (less than 100!) set of customers, collect their feedback to inform your product strategy and positioning. These paying customers jumpstart your customer base, but more importantly, will point out flaws in your product strategy and help you reach a proof of concept that you can feel confident about, before you commit a large sum of resources to full-scale development and implementation.

Consider the case of Google Glass. Glass illustrates the risks of developing hardware without clear validation of a customer value proposition. The market wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the device when it launched publicly. While early adopters of the device, or beta-testers, were helpful and have now informed Google in its enterprise release of Glass, Google could have saved a considerable amount of investment with more low-fidelity prototyping.  

This singular goal of value creation also helps to focus your team, thereby enabling them to move quickly. Further, paying customers will want to see the next version of your concept – placing pressure to move quickly and continue iterating.

5. Test your concept under a different name. 

Finding a way to protect your brand while running innovation experiments is like the autobahn for your new venture. By using a new name to test your concept, you can remove legal and brand barriers that otherwise might constrain you in launching something new. Further, you eliminate any false positives from customers who simply admire and trust your brand.  The feedback you’ll receive is based on whether or not customers actually value your product or service, not from your brand’s halo effect. 

For 2 years, Nike had tested their “sneaker club for kids” concept under the name EasyKicks before relaunching the brand as Nike Adventure Club. Piloting under EasyKicks enabled them to move fast and iterate, while collecting valuable customer feedback to iron out the business model. 

6. Ignore feasibility for 30 days.

At the heart of innovation is change. Android-app developer, Appster, has encouraged a robust-culture of asking forgiveness rather than permission on most improvements. Rather than a top-down approach, every team is encouraged to embrace change and realize that current processes must adapt.  

Within your team, agree to table discussing the feasibility for your concept for 30 days. You can still gather concerns and assumptions for building your concept, but tabling action to address feasibility. This will give you the time & focus you need to test your concept for customer desirability and business viability. 

You won’t be able to assess your concept’s resonance with customers if you’re hindered in feasibility discussions. Discussing feasibility of an early-stage concept will waste valuable time; most ideas morph and change from their first iteration, after collecting feedback from your customers and testing the business model. Once your concept develops further, feasibility can be solved through alternative methods, such as partnering or buying a new capability. 

This list should provide you a mix of different ways your team can accelerate an idea, whether by changing the vision at the end of the road, breaking up the trip, removing barriers, or surfacing guardrails. One should work for your team, as they have for many other teams who have had success in this realm. You have a map & manual, now buckle up for the ride!

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