Welcome to the Mid Zone of Innovation

by Anthony Mills

In 1991, Don Reinertsen and Preston Smith introduced the world to the “Fuzzy Front End” of product development. The following year, Peter Koen offered more structure and definition around this concept when he subsequently renamed it the Front End of Innovation, or FEI, a name that has since stuck. Koen envisioned the Front End as a structured series of steps focused on discovery, scoping, and business case development. He later evolved it into a broader model involving opportunity identification, opportunity analysis, idea generation, idea selection, and concept definition – much of what has today come to be known as Innovation Management. In both cases, the work being described was work that preceded the formal product development process.

Over time, and by way of reciprocity, this ensuing formal product development work came to be known as the Back End of Innovation, or BEI. Together, this two-part Front End / Back End model captured the flow of innovation activity needed to move from concept to commercialization.

The Front End / Back End model was right for its time, as back then the activities around innovation were largely managed inside of those two buckets. However, fast-forward nearly a quarter century, and we find that things have changed a bit. Innovation Management has now become a discipline unto itself, and along with it, how more progressive companies are managing their innovation pipelines. Consequently, the two-bucket model no longer accurately reflects the best way to think about managing an innovation pipeline. Instead, we need to introduce the Mid Zone of Innovation.

Here, the Front End is still the domain of ideation, creative brainstorming, and the discovery work needed to find new opportunities around unmet market needs… the safe place where new business ideas are born and have their genesis. And the Back End is still the domain of execution – of actually taking the idea into the market and commercializing it… making it a reality. But for those who have been running front to back innovation projects in recent years, they will quickly recognize that a whole lot of work goes on in between these two ends. This is the space we are now calling the Mid Zone of Innovation.

What exactly happens in the Mid Zone of Innovation?

What happens, as we are increasingly witnessing, is a substantial amount of in-depth research and planning work. This work is aimed at taking the relatively raw idea that the Front End has handed us and turning that into a well-vetted, viable concept that we can then hand off to the Back End. This includes crafting detailed go-to-market strategies, brand strategies, operations plans, marketing plans, production plans, distribution plans, and so forth. It also can include in-depth qualitative and quantitative market research, ethnographic observations, design studies, user studies, and so forth. It is not uncommon for this work to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the industry and the market.

Why is this work considered a Mid Zone activity and not a Front End or a Back End activity?

The answer to that question lies partly in the scope and scale of the innovation, and partly in a shift in how businesses are now managing large-scale innovations. In the case of very incremental (small scale) innovations, the project may be fully greenlighted from the beginning, and this work would thereafter be considered a normal part of the project’s Back End. But for larger-scale innovations, projects are now being run inside of companies much more like startup businesses, where there are multiple milestones and toll gates they must successfully navigate before they are greenlighted for full market introduction (symbolically referred to as “Series A”, “Series B”, “Series C”, etc. milestones).

As a result, all of this research and planning work must be completed before the project can be given the green light to go into market at scale. This means that it spends a big period of its working life winding its way through the innovation pipeline without ever knowing whether it will pass the final hurdle of approval for full market introduction. Because it is well past ideation and concept development, this is not Front End work, and because it is not yet approved for commercialization, this is not Back End work either. It is Mid Zone work. Once the project finally passes its last “Mid Zone hurdle”, then the executional work of the Back End begins, in which case all of these plans will be carried out in order to take the concept into the market. Everything that happens in between approval to work on the idea, and this final tollgate, is the Mid Zone of Innovation. As can be seen, it is in the Mid Zone that the real make-or-break work of research, planning, and pitching takes place, and the real high-level go or no-go decisions get made based on those learnings and their pitches.

A similar pattern is being seen with startups. Often the initial concept is given a small amount of Angel or Seed VC funding explicitly for the purpose of creating a workable proof-of-concept / beta / MVP to go do in-market learning with, prior to creating the ultimate product (perhaps after a pivot or two) which then becomes the subject of a real Series A Funding to scale it in the marketplace. This same “pipeline”, between Seed and Series A, is where the real learning takes place (essentially “on the fly, in-market, research and planning”). It can be thought of as the Mid Zone of Innovation for startups.

The Three-Part Model

In our experience, this three-part model – Front End / Mid Zone / Back End – is a much better representation of the state of Innovation Management today, and a much better reflection of the Lean Startup model and how that model is being used inside of large organizations. In our work with clients, a big part of the heavy lifting we do is precisely that – putting together go-to-market strategies, operations plans, marketing plans, and so forth. All of this has its life in the Mid Zone of Innovation.

image credit: Daniel X. O’Neil

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Anthony Mills is the Founder and CEO of Legacy Innovation Group, a growth strategy firm rooted in insight and innovation. His consulting and training services focus on growth strategy, workplace innovation, innovation management, corporate venturing, business innovation, open innovation, portfolio alignment, and innovation spaces. His company also offers market, technology, venture,  and acquisition scouting, and capital introduction services, as well as strategic leadership of client NPD projects for the purpose of developing and commercializing new product and service innovations. You can follow him @amills101

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