9 steps to building something new
For many advisory businesses it’s been a time for survival – but now it’s time to build something new. How do you get your new product innovation strategy right?
Unless you happen to have fluked your way into the business of hand sanitizer, board games, canned goods or virtual conferencing technology, it’s likely that this year has been a challenging one to hit the revenue targets you set back in the pre-COVID days of 2019.
And if you’re in the advice business – whether that’s consulting, recruitment, data & technology, advertising, media or anything else – this year has probably been at least partially one to hunker down, lick your wounds and keep the ship afloat.
But life goes on, and it’s time to plan your next move. 2021 is coming.
There’s understandably a lot of focus in this planning cycle on getting leaner, meaner and more focused. On clarity of proposition and structure. All very good priorities, with growth and cost opportunities moving hand-in-hand.
The danger is that product and service innovation is getting moved to the back of the queue.
And disinvestment in product innovation is potentially a big miss right now, because client businesses have a lot of new high value needs, so innovative approaches are very desirable.
And of course, lots of your fiercest competitors are themselves in a tight spot…so the field of play for new products and services is temporarily a little less cluttered.
So, there’s never been a better time to innovate your product. But there’s a lot of other important things going on, and you can’t afford to be distracted by white elephants or failed initiatives.
It’s time to get serious about your product innovation strategy.
I’ve spent a lot of the year focused on product and solution innovation with a range of brilliant agencies, consultancies and other businesses.
And, given that time is at a premium, here’s 9 rapid-fire principles that I’ve learnt along the way that should shape your new product development.
1. Begin with a real need
Resist the temptation to look into the crystal ball and guess the future, to try to spot an opportunity that no-one else has thought of. Finding it is always a possibility, but it’s by far the hardest kind of product development.
The best way, by far, is to find something that you already hear your clients asking for, but feeling unready to answer.
Save the magic, if you need it, for the ‘how’. The chances are that the innovation space is already right in front of you and your people every day. Ask, and you’ll find it.
2. Understand the problem
Even if you’ve chosen the right space, the chances are that your client already has hundreds of options available in the service space you are describing.
Unless your aim is to take your chances building the 101st, don’t go anywhere near defining a solution until you’ve understood the underlying or emerging problems that make an alternative solution desirable.
Ask questions, and whatever you do, don’t sell anything while you’re asking. Listen, listen, listen. Look out for complaints, frustrations and wishes. This is the fuel you need.
3. Develop a point of view
An advisory service should never be a generic. All solutions are available in different flavours, and you need to work out what yours is, and it needs to taste, or look, or feel different – both to attract the right customers, and to put off the wrong ones.
You are already a brand, and you already have a point of view. Look at the problems and frustrations that your potential clients have from that point of view. What about it makes you angry, or passionate to fix something?
If you are able to combine that distinctive point of view with the genuine expertise to bring it to life, you are likely to find something that clients will find meaningful – and that will make sense alongside your current offering.
4. Build back from outcomes
Advisory solutions are in some sense intangibles. That means that the way people judge them, and the way people sell them to their internal stakeholders, needs to be particularly tangible and quantifiable.
So whatever decisions you make about the product, the process or the sell need to be directly linked to a value equation, with each of your key decision points providing an advantage that is at least theoretically quantifiable.
The measures don’t always need to be lofty – it could just be a case of being quicker, or cheaper, or easier to use – but they do need to be there, and defined on the customer’s terms, not yours.
5. Show plenty of ‘how’
When you know a business or a practitioner well, you have the freedom almost totally lose interest in their methodology. It’s a waste of your mental bandwidth, because you trust them to get the job done well.
The inverse is true with new products. If you are creating something new, and selling something new, you owe it to yourself and to the customer to provide a pretty rigorous methodology, with full attention to stages, time, resources, talent and outputs.
You won’t need to do this forever – but a new product needs a lot of ‘how’. And documenting the details of ‘how’ also makes it much easier for your team to improve them consistently, and at speed.
6. Thorough thinking, minimum viable investment
In my experience, resource scarcity is less rarely the reason for the failure of a new product or service than you might think. More often I see the opposite – an over-commitment of time and resource too early, that leads to a trough of disappointment, and then the premature cancellation of something that might have been seen as promising if there had been a little more room to breathe.
The resource that new advisory products need is in mental effort: the concept, the attention, the business development focus. But the more you can work with existing underused resources, with existing means or with external independent talent, the better. It makes it much easier to be excited about a modest initial upside when it’s all profit.
Even better, modest investment opens the opportunity to incubate multiple new services at the same time – and in a challenging environment, reducing the pressure on each bet and diversifying makes it much more likely that something will pay off.
7. Make the first step easy
Switching from ‘core’ to ‘innovation’ business can be a difficult mindset shift – because so much of your natural mindset around the core is to seek scale and profile, and to sell sophistication.
An innovation product needs to be swallowed in small pieces by your early clients, and explored in small steps by your internal team.
It’s worth ensuring that each new product has an easy first step – a pilot, or a mapping exercise – it’s amazingly easier to pursue the full solution once the first step has been taken.
8. Learn, learn, learn
Meticulous preparation is great, but nothing means anything until it hits the market. You’ve got to start somewhere.
For the first 10 projects or more, just as much effort should be going into the learning process as into the delivery of the project itself.
Don’t get held up building it, branding it, or creating a plan to scale it. Do it as soon as you are ready, and then improve it once you understand what it really is.
9. Get behind your winners
A lot of the advice above is about not investing too much, too early in the process, for fear of disappointment.
The opposite also applies – in almost every case I see the levels of emotional and financial investment slacking off once the first burst of excitement, quick wins and management focus depart.
This is crazy. Generally, at this point, you know the market…you know what works…and you have some kind of methodology…including proper understanding of what doesn’t work.
This is the time to invest. That way you’ll find you have product innovation that might just stick…and become a key driver of your future success.