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Clear Path

A Clear Path to Kick-Starting Innovation

Oct. 14, 2020
Strategic discovery seeks to define and characterize the needs and the market for solutions before building out a solution.

One popular conception around the birth of new innovations is that they arise from an individual’s eureka moment. While that’s rarely the case, the idea is attractive in part because it seemingly explains how some innovators are to be able to see through the status quo in a way that unlocks potential.

A more common scenario for successful new ventures is a group of experienced practitioners who have come to understand their industry inside and are able to see unmet needs that are ripe for solving.

What if you haven’t got half a career to wait? Fortunately there’s another way. Whether as a small group of co-founders, a growth-seeking enterprise, or a corporate R&D team, running a structured, need-based innovation process is a way to reliably produce the insights, perspective, and information needed to maximize the chances of a successful venture.

Need-based innovation processes have arisen over recent decades and vary in name and details, sometimes specialized for particular industries or settings. In our consulting practice we call it “strategic discovery.” Regardless of the specifics, simply having a process for evaluating new business or product opportunities does three things. First, it creates a framework for collaborators to discuss values and strategy up front. It’s surprisingly easy to skirt these conversations early on, to the detriment of later teamwork and decision making. Second, it brings objectivity that balances the passion of entrepreneurs and innovators and gives collaborators tools to help decide between otherwise ambiguous or contentious options. Third, it allows teams to track and manage progress in evaluating new opportunities.

Strategic discovery comes before traditional product development processes. It seeks to define and characterize the needs and the market for solutions before building out a solution. No person or organization wants to invest significant time and resources into developing a product or service with a limited market or some fatal flaw. Good needs are ones that have customers ready for a solution, fit with the focus and capabilities of the innovators, and can be addressed with available resources.

The following five steps are good starting point for a strategic discovery process.

1. Develop a large list of potential needs. The needs can come from a variety of places, but it’s essential to leverage the tools of human-centered design or design thinking to engage with stakeholders either to identify the needs or validate them later. Nothing can replace hearing your customers and users voice their own views and observing what is really happening in the space you want to innovate.

2. Define the needs. This involves developing a carefully crafted problem statement which encapsulates the current understanding of the problem and sets up the team for invention. One format developed in the Stanford Biodesign program is structured to include the problem, affected population, and outcome. A statement might then read like, “what is needed is a way to [address problem] for [population] that [outcome].” For example, “A way to sort waste materials for city residents that improves the rate of recycling.” Refine these need statements as work progresses and more insight is gained.

3. Characterize the opportunity around each need. As a team, agree on key metrics and define a system for scoring opportunities against these metrics. Metrics likely include things like estimated size of the market, potential response of stakeholders to change, pathways to market or regulatory hurdles, and existing competitors. Start with just a little data gathered as quickly as possible and score the opportunities against the metrics. Use the scores to focus on leading opportunities and iteratively work through this step to continually build depth on an ever-shorter list of potential targets.

4. After reaching sufficient depth of understanding and a manageably short list, develop a solution specification for the remaining opportunities in which you define what must be true about a solution without defining the solution itself.

5. Finally, time for ideation. This often feels like a natural place to start, but such efforts are undeniably more likely to be productive by having completed deep research in the need characterization phase. Use best practices for brainstorming and concept generation to develop a list of many alternate solutions. Rank concepts against the need specification to make final selection for further development.

The output of the process is a list of well-vetted opportunities and plausible solutions. Typically a group of innovators will pick their top need and run with it. If the next steps involve recruiting collaborators or capital, as they often do, a welcome by-product of the work done is compelling material for these pitches. And there’s no reason to abandon the needs lower down on the list, they may well be viable opportunities for later exploration.

At times, working through a need-based innovation process may feel arduous, but the investment is a fraction of what typically goes into new product or service development and yields the highest-probability options for further work. The strategic discovery process is a framework for anyone considering a new venture.

Todd Murphy is an Innovation Strategist at Root3 Labs, an engineering and product development consultancy in Baltimore, MD. Former roles include product management at Apple and co-founding a digital health company for asthma management, Tueo Health. He became an evangelist for need-based innovation during his time as a Biodesign Innovation Fellow at Stanford University.

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