I had a conversation recently that I have had a number of times before, and so I wanted to discuss it here: there is a great divide between having a great idea and having a successful product. As Apple, Microsoft, and many others have proved, success is often less about what you have and more about how you sell it. DOS, windows and the iPod all share the common trait that they were not the first to market in their respective categories; they were however executed better than all of their predecessors.
The most common trap that I have seen in the marketplace has been companies that create “solutions looking for a problem” or simply technology for technology’s sake. If you have not identified the target market for your product during the development, you will be facing an uphill battle once that product is ready. A good way to increase your chances for success is to identify a group of potential users whose needs have not been addressed with current solutions. Real solutions address a legitimate need, in a way that is simpler or better than what is currently on the market. This brings us to our most important point; the key to successful innovation and product development is a resonating focus on the needs of the customer. It is not enough to add value; you have to add value to the customer. Ask them questions. Listen to them. And most important of all, allow them to drive your innovations.
The Project Pre-Mortem
Last year, The Harvard Business Review featured an article which discussed the technique of performing a “pre-mortem” on your project. I won’t spoil what is quite a good read (click here for full text, registration required), but the basic premise is, to test your project’s likelihood of success, turn the tables; pretend for a moment that the project has already failed. Get the team into a room and discuss the hows and whys of the failure. Identify key things that might have been missed, or steps which could have been taken to reduce the probability of failure. The article brings a number of issues to the forefront, the first is, most projects fail; the second is, most team members probably saw it coming, even if you didn’t. The pre-mortem is a great way to free unpleasant from the shackles of organizational hierarchy that would otherwise prevent feedback from reaching the people who need to hear it. At the very least, it can help you reduce your losses by cutting off projects desitined to fail, and at best, hopefully, it will help to design projects which have a higher probability of success.