Act and Think Small to Win Big With Killer Ideas

It Works: Stop Seeking Perfection and Invite Intuition and Risk Into the Innovation Process

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In consumer packaged goods, bigger is better. The bigger you are, the more clout you have, the more creative you can be, and the more innovative products you can bring to consumers, right? Not quite.
Ideas in action: Orange Glo developed products based on rough ideas, produced some samples and took them to home shows. Show sales, combined with consumer interaction, guided tweaks.
Ideas in action: Orange Glo developed products based on rough ideas, produced some samples and took them to home shows. Show sales, combined with consumer interaction, guided tweaks.

Sure, being "big" has its advantages, but it's more likely that if you are acting your size, you are holding yourself back from your true potential. Acting smaller enables you to be nimble and flexible. It allows you to get great ideas quicker, work more of them, move on them faster and develop them easier. It's what will allow you to find true innovation vs. incremental line extensions and me-too products.

Just a few shifts
This isn't to suggest that you fire 200 employees and act like a start up. Or spend hundreds of dollars instead of millions to develop new products or even to ditch traditional market research. Instead, you can get the benefits of amazing innovation by making just a few shifts in your mind-set and changes in cultural expectations.

The first step: Invite intuition into the innovation process. Cultures of "show me the data" have resulted in companies' perpetually chasing trends and numbers instead of great ideas. If your team is spending time and resources chasing data, it's really chasing perfection, a much bigger risk in the innovation process; in the end, you might never find what you need.

If you must have data (which is OK!) decide ahead of time what data you trust and know what metrics matter to you. This will keep you from being paralyzed looking for the "right" answers when you should be moving on or moving forward. More important, allow yourself to use information to form a direction, not a statistical answer.

One way to do this is through "battle testing." When refining a product idea, we often develop a small batch of products that feature various packaging and communication options. Then, we set up a booth in a mall, fair or farmer's market and see which product consumers most respond to. After we see what they buy, we are then able to talk to them about their purchases and choices. After only a few days, we know what changes to make to the product and can do a few more tests in independent retailers, online retailers and other avenues.

Learning as you go
We will never know volumetrics, repeat data or projected sales in year one. But we are able to triangulate enough data points to know what product changes to make and intuit what is likely to be successful in market.

By seeking innovation certainty, which simply does not exist, not only do you waste years getting to market and thousands, if not millions, of dollars in development, you also cultivate risk-averse employees who are afraid to reach for the big idea. Fearful of missing growth projections and ultimately losing their jobs, they are handcuffed to incremental line extensions that hit minimum-growth targets.

By fostering a culture of fearlessness, you allow more ideas to enter the process from every angle and every position. Shift your paradigm and reward your employees for taking risks instead of punishing them for failures. Give them credit for ideas that are 70% to 80% there, instead of 100% perfect (and impossible). Long-term, it is well worth the investment. You'll be able to work more ideas and improve your chances of finding a home-run idea.

The search for perfection can also result in the overengineering of product ideas and time wasted in focus groups and with expensive designers. It's always a great idea to start with paper concepts -- put the benefit, attributes and a product sketch on paper and see if it is worth anything to consumers. But before you find yourself trapped in the walls of a focus-group facility, make the product and let consumers interact with it.

Starting small
We know that consumers don't buy consultant PowerPoint presentations or fancy concept boards -- they buy products. By making a few and selling them, you can evolve your product in small batches, find the right messaging, formulation, recipe -- whatever factor matters most to consumers and that they want you to develop. And by watching consumers interact with something real, you can develop an instinct for why a concept does or does not work, further leveraging the gut intuition you've developed in the right time and place.

One of the best examples of all these ideas in action is the cleaning company Orange Glo International, maker of OxiClean, Orange Clean and Kaboom. Orange Glo developed products based on rough ideas, produced some samples and took them to home shows. By using real sales from the show combined with consumer interaction, it was able to tweak packaging, positioning and formulations to come up with a refined product it could take to retailers nationwide. It consciously chose what information and data mattered to them, made decisions based on that data and never punished their employees for a product that didn't immediately fly off the shelves. To prove its success, they sold their brands to Church & Dwight for $325 million last year.

Instead of driving for perfection, CPG marketers must develop cultures of risk and reward. Stop driving for perfection and the rewards to reap will be more ideas, better ideas and the ability to kill and improve those ideas efficiently.
Peter Murane is president-founder of BrandJuice, a brand-strategy and innovation consulting firm based in Denver. Mr. Murane has 17 years of industry experience, including his first seven at Clorox Co.
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