To Speed up Innovation, Slow Down

By Lee Shupp

Over the last decade, we have seen the product development process accelerate, with products now coming to market faster than ever before. Fortune 500 companies are streamlining the innovation process to slash time to market. Midsize companies are embracing startup culture, doing their best to get new ideas to market at startup speed. Startups race to market as fast as they can, pivoting at a frenetic pace to find the right market entry point. Skunkworks are sprouting up to circumvent cumbersome product development practices. Innovation centers are opening far away from corporate headquarters to encourage agility. Innovation accelerators are proliferating, guiding entrepreneurs down the fast track of the startup trail.

Much of all of this is good. Innovation had become stuck in the mud at many companies, mired in bureaucracy and endless review cycles. Market disruption has become the new normal, and barriers to markets are dissolving. There are many smart people with high ambition who are chasing enticing ideas. We have moved into an era of hyper-competition at hyper speed.

How fast is too fast?

When we as product and experience designers start talking about a “Minimum Viable Product” instead of creating the most compelling possible value proposition, are we shortchanging ourselves and our customers?

We believe that innovation is accelerating. We can all feel the pace of our own lives accelerating as we race to keep up. But is that smart? Is it time to work smarter, and not just faster?

There is evidence that we may be moving too fast to create compelling consumer experiences. We hear from some of our customers that quality assurance is slipping, customer complaints are increasing, and returns are up as a result of products being rushed to market. Innovation accelerators, while producing an occasional rock star, are more often failing, with low success ratios overall. For every big win, a lot of folks are going home empty-handed.

What are the Risks?

There are undeniable costs to moving too fast. The risk of failure increases. The costs of customer service go up. More money is lost on returns, defects, and recalls.

So what can we do? We can’t turn back time, and return to the days of protracted process and bureaucratic bog. What we can do is to slow down long enough to plan carefully, consider the benefits and risks of tradeoffs we might make to get to market faster, and have open conversations about the risks that come with increased speed.  

Too often we witness companies skipping important steps in the innovation process to rush to market, without considering the implications or the increased risk that they are taking on. Often there is no knowledge of best practices, and what tradeoffs can or should be made along the product development path to shorten time to market. When you shorten the process, when you skip steps, you increase risk and the likelihood of failure whether you acknowledge it or not.

How do we solve the problem?

One of the most important steps that is often skipped is taking the time to truly understand your customer. Too often the entrepreneur envisions him- or herself as the customer, and develops a product for a market of one. Taking the time to understand your target customer- their unmet needs and aspirations, the pain points of their daily lives, and how they would like you to help them- always saves product development time in the long run. This understanding can be easily translated into personas and journey maps, so that your designers and engineers have a clear picture of who they are designing for, and what experiences matter most to them. This focuses product development efforts on the “moments of truth” that mean the most, and saves pivots, revisions and do-overs that come when you miss the target.

We are currently in a Land of Plenty, with lots of VC dollars chasing innovation ideas. There are currently over 140 startup “unicorns” worth over $1B. That is a historically high figure that is unsustainable. The easy money will eventually tighten up, and investors will begin to require more market discipline from innovators, both in the startup world and inside Fortune 500 companies. When that moment comes, innovators who work smart, and not just fast, will reap the biggest rewards.

Jen Torche