How to Make the ‘Fuzzy Front End’ Less Fuzzy

by Chad McAllister

Innovation often appears to be challenging, problematic, and even mysterious. To underscore the vagueness associated with innovation, we are told it begins not with a set of clear actions, but the “fuzzy front end.” The PDMA Glossary for New Product Development defines this as:

The messy getting-started period of product development, when the product concept is still very fuzzy. Preceding the more formal product development process, it generally consists of three tasks: strategic planning, concept generation, and, especially, pre-technical evaluation. These activities are often chaotic, unpredictable, and unstructured.

Given the chaotic nature of the fuzzy front end, it is no surprise organizations struggle with identifying sources for promising ideas along with processes for jumpstarting innovation. But it doesn’t have to be such a struggle. I found several tools for making innovation a lot less fuzzy in a recent interview with Rowan Gibson, co-founder of Innovation Excellence, bestselling author, and 2015 Global Leader of Innovation Award winner. He addresses the fuzzy front end in his recent book, The 4 Lenses of Innovation.

Each of his lenses is a tool for creating ideas. While powerful in their own right, the integration of all four can create ideas that lead organizations to breakthrough innovations.

During the interview, we discussed the four lenses and Rowan provided examples to illustrate each. See link for podcast interview below.

The Four Lenses of Innovation

  1. Challenging Orthodoxies. This is about questioning entrenched beliefs and assumptions and then exploring new and unconventional answers. People who do this don’t want to just play the game, they want to reinvent the game. An example is Elon Musk, not just transforming the automotive industry with Tesla electric cars, but also commercializing the space industry.
  2. Harnessing Trends.  We must recognize the future potential of emerging developments and leverage those trends to open new opportunities. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is a good example of “harnessing trends” by seeing how the growth of internet usage would impact commerce, creating Amazon in 1994 before many people had access to the Internet. Amazon has continued to harness trends by developing eBook readers, streaming media, and moving to become the hub of the smart home with its Echo system and Dash direct-order buttons.
  3. Leveraging Resources. Understanding our limitless capacity for redeploying skills and assets in new ways, combinations, or contexts is how we leverage resources. Rowan shared that Walt Disney, the person and the company, are good examples of this lens. The experiences created by animated movies was extended to theme parks, musicals, ice skating performances, cruise ships, and more.
  4. Understanding Needs. When we pay attention to issues and frustrations others have ignored and experiment with new solutions to problems, we recognize where innovation is needed. A way to identify unmet needs is to ask what is wrong with a product or service from the perspective of a customer. Sherman Williams’ reinvented the paint can for their Dutch Boy product line, replacing the inconvenient metal can that had not changed for a 100 years with a plastic container that has a screw-off cap, holding handle, and pouring spout. It is hard to believe it took 100 years to make these improvements. Think about the unmet customer needs that are right in front of you.

The 4 Lenses of Innovation Book

Rowan’s new book, “The 4 Lenses of Innovation” is valuable to practitioners for two key reasons. First, it clearly describes how each lens is used and how the intersection of the findings from each lens can help organizations be innovative. Second, it contains numerous examples of historical and contemporary innovators to illustrate the 4 lenses. These examples are stories innovators can use to convey the nature of product innovation and motivate their colleagues to take action.

One more note about the book – get the print version, not the eBook. The book is rich with graphics that enhance the written content, which is best experienced in good old paper.

Listen to the interview with Rowan Gibson on The Everyday Innovator Podcast.

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Chad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow him on Twitter.

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