5 Speed Bumps on the road to innovation

When you’re in the early stages of creating an innovative product, success comes from running many small, high-learning experiments. When these experiments slow down or stall out, it’s often due to well-meaning people who don’t understand the nature of early product development.

As you’re building and developing your innovative product, watch out for these speedbumps along your path.

Speedbump #1: The Mass Market Visionary

mass-market-visionaryMass Market Visionaries are focused on where their product is headed, and what it could be — not where it is RIGHT NOW. They’re uncomfortable focusing on a small early market of customers who don’t necessarily fit their big vision of a mass-market product.

Problem is — if you’re building something innovative and you don’t capture and delight your micro-vertical, you won’t get the chance to HAVE a mass market to worry about.

Teams that stumble often go broad FIRST, and skip over the crucial stage of finding and delighting their micro-vertical. A few years back, we worked on an innovative, high-profile ARG (Alternate Reality Game) that was designed for a casual, mass-market audience — and guess what? The enthusiastic (and technically adept) early adopters got in there first, chewed through the content ahead of schedule, gleefully shared “secrets” and spoilers on their favorite geeky forums, posted scathing reviews, and ruined the party for everyone.

That ambitious game never reached its intended audience — in part because the team skipped the early adopters in its customer development. We re-learned this lesson painfully with a recent client who built a fantastic, innovative educational gaming system — but couldn’t find that crucial early enthusiast market, went broad to lackluster sales, and subsequently folded.

If your product is mainstream-friendly and easy to understand, go ahead and target the masses. But if you’re building something innovative,mainstream consumers won’t be able to understand or value your creation — or give you the feedback you need to evolve.

Speedbump #2: The Passionate Believer

It takes superhuman self-control to listen dispassionately while early customers rip apart your beloved ideas. Entrepreneurs who believe deeply in their idea will be sorely tempted to focus on results that confirm their beliefs.

Passionate Believers tend to dismiss or derail customer insights that don’t support the outcome they want to see. Sometimes they’ll partner up with Data Nazis (see below) to bolster their case for ignoring the results of subjective customer research.

The simplest way to manage this is to remove the entrepreneur from the face-to-face customer interviews. Instead, have a dispassionate third party (internal or external) collect the data.

I went through this recently with a startup founder with a background in consumer research. Naturally, he was eager to conduct the early customer interviews, and sure that he’s be an impartial interviewer. Yet during those sessions, his entrepreneurial passion and belief took over — he just couldn’t resist asking leading questions about the product, and trying to talk people out of their reactions.

To counteract this natural tendency, we decided to train a more junior person to conduct the interviews, and use the entrepreneur’s oversight and guidance to refine the interview script and lead the data analysis. This setup allowed us to get the honest feedback we needed to shape the product into a service that today has thousands of paying subscribers.

Speedbump #3: The Data Nazi

Some people worship at the altar of Analytics, and believe that actionable research ALWAYS involves A/B testing and thousands of data points. That’s great if you’re optimizing an existing product, but a total FAIL for bringing something new and innovative to life.

Data Nazis don’t have much hands-on experience bringing innovative products to life. They set themselves up as the champions of TRUTH, and dismiss any qualitative research as “unscientific” to push their own agenda.

I once worked with an inspiring, fast-growing startup to upgrade their website design and internal processes. We interview early customers, mocked up and tested several variations on the core functionality, found a winning design that met our product goals and got high subjective ratings from carefully selected early customers.

One project manager hated the new design, which was going to be challenging to implement. Along with a branding firm (that wanted to redesign the site themselves), an internal team dismissed our prototyping and user feedback results as “too small and subjective to count” without analytics on thousands of testers.

That startup now has a re-branded website with a fresh new logo and colors and… largely the same layout and functionality as before.

A few months later, my former client’s key competitor launched an ALMOST IDENTICAL version of the design we’d come up with via iterative prototyping and testing. It looks and works GREAT. That was a complex, bittersweet moment for me.

Innovation comes from iterative prototyping and testing. Analytics come later. Know when to use both.

Speedbump #4: The Cautious Thinker

Every successful, high-performing MVP team I’ve worked with is empowered to do fast, iterative decision-making. If your team is weighed down by fearful, cautious thinkers, your speed and agility will be severely hampered.

Cautious Thinkers don’t like to be wrong. They feel uncomfortable making decisions without enough data to feel confident. If a key leader takes this approach to MVP development, your progress and learning will slow to a crawl.

The most effective MVP teams make lots of small, revocable decisions to keep moving – and use Lean tactics to recover quickly and learn from mistakes.


Speedbump #5: The High-Gloss Champion

Whenever I see entrepreneurs focus on polished visuals before working out their core activities and systems, my confidence in their success plummets. Visual quality is important at some stages of product development — you don’t want to ship an ugly, hard-to-use product.

During the fast-iteration stages of early customer discovery, focusing on polished visuals is a major speedbump. High-gloss champions are deeply attached to polished visuals, and have a hard time imagining how sketches and wireframes might evolve into something wonderful. These same people can be fooled by hi-res visuals into thinking something is further along than it is (AKA “The Clinkle Effect”)

Recently, I worked with a brilliant young CEO — a product marketer by background — who came to me with beautiful, hi-res mockups of an innovative product concept. Unfortunately, he was convinced that these mockups were “close to final product” (they weren’t) — and pushed to see that level of visual polish in everything we showed to early customers during our needs-finding research.

Guess what happened? Our MVP progress slowed to a crawl. Even worse, the team became attached to the visuals we’d so carefully crafted — even when customer testing showed us that the value proposition wasn’t right.

The more polished the visuals, the harder they are to change — both emotionally and technically.