Getting Through Zero: More Concepts, Better Concepts – Faster
Have you ever noticed that in the Stage-Gate® process, the first stage is Zero? Before you step into the “machinery” (so to speak) there is important work to be done. Whether you call Zero the “the fuzzy front end” or, as one of our clients characterizes it, “a simmering pot of ideas, opportunities, opinions, politics, and fear,” getting through Zero is an important part of the new product development process.
Arguably, “Stage Zero” is the most important part of the new product development process .
Getting through Zero involves generating great ideas and viable product concepts, and that means tapping into your team’s creativity. It can’t, however, be unbounded creativity. Getting through Zero means generating product concepts that are appropriate for your organization’s strategy, brand, and target customer. Getting through Zero requires focus.
SCORE is a five-step process designed to create that focus: Scope, Consult, Originate, Refine, and Evaluate. Fundamentally, SCORE builds “flexible guardrails” around your creativity to make sure the concepts you develop fit with your organization and target customer. While some believe these guardrails constrain creativity, the truth is that guardrails stimulate creativity. Instead of a wide open playing field, think of it as “creating in a pressure cooker.” You get better results, in less time.
While SCORE sounds linear, it demands flexibility. As you proceed, you will learn about your customers’ needs, and you may need to review and revise your guardrails or your working hypotheses. That’s why they call it the “fuzzy front end,” right? It can be messy! So don’t expect everything to run smoothly from A to Z. Flexibility could net you a successful new product concept.
Five Steps to SCORE!
- The first step is SCOPE. In this phase, you establish project parameters and success criteria. Typically, these are developed in a meeting with the project team leaders. It is critical that the project leadership aligns on the parameters and success criteria that will guide the process. Defining the SCOPE of the project requires:
- Defining the playing field and what to include in the project,
- Understanding your brand and where your brand can stretch – or not,
- Industry and socio-economic trends (where is the world going?)
- Key target customers and segments,
- Competition (existing, emerging, and potential),
- Category needs or the foundational expectations of this particular market or customer base.
- Some of these may be readily known and agreed upon. For others, some exploration will be required. After all, if you set your parameters too narrowly, you may miss an important new product opportunity.
- In the CONSULT phase, the voice-of-the-customer is essential. By carefully recruiting those customers who are the best storytellers, qualitative research can bring tremendous insight into the needs of the market.
- Next, the ORIGINATE phase brings together your most creative team members to review the customer insights, while keeping the previously-established guardrails in mind. An intense, facilitated brainstorming session can deliver high-value ideas very quickly.
- During the REFINE phase, and working with Creatives and Problem Solvers, we turn the ideas into concepts. The goal is to develop the strongest, highest-potential concepts to bring forward. Problem Solvers excel at taking ideas and converting them into concepts. The Creatives on your team overcome concept weaknesses with innovative ideas and adjustments.
- The final step before completing Stage Zero is to EVALUATE the concepts. Again, the goal is to engage your target customer to discuss the pros and cons of each concept. This last round of feedback and prioritization gives you the added confidence on which concepts to advance to Stage 1.
Research on innovation has documented that out of 7 innovation projects, only one project is successfully commercialized. The beauty of SCORE is that it ensures that only the strongest possible concepts get through Zero, and it aligns the team around a known customer need. From what we know firsthand from our clients, this front-end investment accelerates projects through early gates and also shortens the time to commercialization. In my mind, that is a SCORE higher than ZERO.