Purpose Built Innovation: Aligning Product to Need

Most innovation efforts start with trying to solve a problem and tend to focus on increasing efficiency or effectiveness, but forget to stay focused on the purpose: addressing a need.


By Laura Livers

In our last post we explored the drivers of innovation and the differences between disruptive and incremental innovation. We dove into the idea of pragmatic innovation and its application and its impact on efficiency and effectiveness. The point was to differentiate between the “shiny objects” that generate much hype (and often deservedly so) and the less heralded but no less important work of taking an existing process or product and making it better. However, we barely touched on the beginning of the innovation journey – aligning the product to a need. In other words, purpose built innovation.

Most innovation efforts start with trying to solve a problem and tend to focus on increasing efficiency or effectiveness. But it’s easy to get sidetracked with the “coolness factor” of some ideas and forget to stay focused on the purpose: addressing a need.

As researchers we are familiar with the process of creating, testing, and optimizing concepts, but how do we develop a process within our organization to make purpose built innovation part of the DNA of the company? A process is required as well as a cultural commitment and the allocation of resources. Let’s explore …

The Process:

The innovation funnel is a visual representation that people are familiar with when discussing how companies move from ideas to products. And it accurately reflects the narrowing of possibilities that occurs over time: Every crazy idea you can imagine makes it into the top of the funnel; as the ideas are analyzed, fewer and fewer move down the funnel. And only a select few exit the funnel and become products.

Tom Fishburne has a wonderful Marketoon that represents how many feel about this process:



But is the funnel the right shape for 21st-century innovation? David Nichols actually suggests a rocket shape to innovation, where a team starts with a very sharp vision and strategy that informs which ideas make the cut in the development process. The idea of a rocket is quite inspiring! A rocket is powerful, fast, and requires a lot of collaboration across different teams to make it work well. Shouldn’t we all be aiming for rocket-propelled ideas and products?!



The basic pieces of the original funnel still hold true in terms of the key inputs that need to take place.

To extend this analogy one step further, each phase of innovation corresponds to one component of rocket propulsion.

  • Ignition = Opportunity Assessment – What is that spark of inspiration that ignites the innovation process? Typically it is the recognition of a new market opportunity. Understanding a specific opportunity in the context of your firm’s overall vision and strategy gets everything in motion and sets the trajectory for the types of ideas you’re going to consider.
  • Nozzle = Insights-Based Ideation– In a rocket, fuel flows through the nozzle, which is flared out to propel the vehicle off the ground. Ideas – and a lot of them – are precious fuel in the innovation process. Ideally, these will be drawn upon viewpoints across and outside the organization and will be based on knowledge you have of the marketplace and your customers. These ideas are then narrowed down and explored in the conceptualization phase.
  • Combustion Chamber = Conceptualization–This is where the classic funnel misrepresents the process. Actually turning a select set of ideas into product concepts requires a new set of considerations: How should the offering be packaged? Do we need a new logo?  How will we message it? Does the color palette make a difference? What should the price point be? This expands the innovation space again: each concept has a particular set of attributes or characteristics that need to be explored. In a rocket, the combustion chamber is where hot, highly pressurized gasses expand to create the energy that leads to lift-off. A poorly executed expansion won’t provide enough power to get you where you want to go.
  • Guidance System = Evaluation and Benchmarking– If you don’t have a way to efficiently make informed choices on all these attributes, then the innovation process becomes an exercise rooted in gut instinct rather than in data. Measuring the appeal of one concept chosen by gut isn’t measurement; you need to identify and measure the best opportunities out of all the options. Marketers need clear maps outlining which attributes will be most important to a target audience, and how the best concepts perform against the competition.
  • Payload System = Go/No Go. The very top of the rocket is the payload, and it’s what’s actually carried into space. This is your precious cargo, which depends on a well-tuned system to get it off the ground.

Since ideas are the fuel of the rocket, “Open innovation” is an attractive destination to aim for. Many companies today are struggling to bring multiple constituents together within the confines of the firm, and this movement to a more open innovation cycle relies on a combination of technology and company-wide culture change.

Enter a new era of openness, where collaboration is key.

  • Idea management systems: As companies go global and business becomes digital, more formalized idea management systems allow people from the far reaches of the organization to submit their suggestions.
  • Innovation management: The company uses technology to methodically connect the best ideas to company goals and incorporate them into the innovation process.
  • Collaborative innovation: At this stage, the firm begins to seek out broader employee input throughout the innovation and development process, not only at the ideation stage.
  • Open innovation: What if the best ideas aren’t inside the organization? Now, customers, suppliers, and other constituents outside of the company are tapped for input and ideas in the never-ending search for competitive advantage.

But the process is only the framework to manage the work; filling the funnel and maintaining it via cultural adoption within the organization is needed.

Filling the rocket tank 

The stereotype of the lone innovator and the anecdotes about inspiration are clearly not true. Edison was not a lone inventor. He built the first modern day industrial lab. Steve Jobs was not a lone genius. His alchemy was instigation and circulating ideas through his people.

To reliably innovate, companies must adopt collaboration platforms that empower workforces to interact. Platforms that enable teams to better disseminate ideas, share information, and (most importantly) work together.

As an alternative, let’s consider two forms of innovation idea generation that share similar trajectories:

  1. Product Hacking– This new form of hacking is not done by expert computer users or cyber criminals, but is in fact done by everyday people. This new terminology for hacking refers to the act of modifying or customizing everyday products to improve their functionality or repurpose them.
  2. Customer Co-Creation– Co-creation is when two or more people come together as a collaborative team, with a strong desire to create something beyond their individual capabilities. In contrast to Product Hacking, folks are now working in teams, typically coming up with ideas on their own to begin with and then moving on to collaborate towards common ground.

What Product Hacking & Customer Co-Creation have in common is that anyone can be a contributor – employees, customers, suppliers, and other constituents outside of the company.

It’s at the raw emotive level where customers are able to design rough constructs to solve their pain points.  The themes that emerge from hacking and/or co-creating can serve as the creative spark to a talented developer.

Steve Jobs didn’t simply come down from the mountaintop with a fully functioning iPhone.  He correctly “observed” what the customer was searching for from a social/communication device and developed a product to answer that.  Of course, geniuses like Steve Jobs only come around every century, so the key to filling the innovation rocket at your company is via product hacking and collaborative co-creation.

Building an Innovation Culture

In order to stay focused on aligning the product to the need, single minded focus and discipline is required; so often companies jump for the low hanging fruit at the expense of the big picture opportunity. That said, nimbleness in a rapidly changing market, especially one as technology-driven as the market research industry, can be important as well.

A hybrid system for product development that mixes elements from both imperatives (Product Hacking & Customer Co-Creation) is a proven model.

First, always start with a goal in mind – solve for x. Then structure a project plan based on its critical parts, identifying interdependencies and target dates. Importantly, within the plan, build in time for additional learnings and the potential for risk or surprises. For example, if part of the plan includes building new features into your online research tool, set aside time for prototyping and user feedback. At the extreme, if you think part of the plan is high risk, develop multiple, simultaneous approaches to ensure certainty. Within that system, you have flexibility to reprioritize items or projects.

Last but not least, while each project can be more planned or more agile, what should never change is the focus on the power of teams and collaboration. Make project teams cross-functional with representation from customer stakeholders, R&D, operations and finance. Also, as projects progress, let the teams smartly self-organize – individual team members can be added or switched out based on the needs at that juncture.

Collaboration is an absolute requirement for successful innovation. Don’t be afraid to look outside of your organization to collaborate externally – it can be invaluable in building a culture of collaborative entrepreneurship. By partnering with specialists that are willing to learn together, every member of the team can be enriched by the experience.

Be mindful that what you get from the open innovation process depends on who you include. Your core users already see value in what you offer. They are an important element, but focusing only on their input might get a tweaked version of what you’ve already got, but won’t impact competitive advantage. Lead users can push the product in new directions, potentially influencing the next generation of your product. Last, non-customers have needs that you don’t currently fulfill, and their input may very well be the future of your company and open up new spheres of innovation.

Finally, learn to be accepting of failure. Through the innovation process we just outlined you will purposefully go through many iterations of your original vision – many of which may not be successful. As you iterate quickly, learning critical requirements and using the learnings to make further developments, the success of the product is built on every failure that comes before it. As an organization this will strengthen your commitment to new ideas, understanding that the ideal solution will often be much changed from the original concept.

Now, go forth and innovate with purpose!

Want to learn more? Visit Focus Pointe Global.

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