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Fixing the Fuzzy Front End

Over the past decade, innovation-focused organizations have invested heavily in front-end of innovation (FEI) activities. While there is little empirical evidence, the anecdotal evidence suggests that the FEI suffers from a perceived lack of agility and productivity.

Common complaints:
“A front-end assignment is almost too productive. It generates so much information, opportunities, and ideas we get bogged down.”
“We are really good at generating ideas but struggle with concepts.”
“The process is too long, too complicated, and very expensive.”
“Our process is too unstructured. We generate but don’t produce.”

If your front-end suffers from these same issues, odds are you lack sufficient structure or your process is too divergent. In response, many organizations are implementing Stage-Gate® like processes inside the front-end. If you think about it, this is a promising idea. Here’s why:

  1. It forces the innovation team to properly scope the assignment based on what the team can handle, and the resources the organization is willing to commit. Oftentimes, FEI assignments are scoped too narrowly or too broadly. If too narrow, you run the risk of learning things you already know and getting incrementality. If too broad, the results are not actionable. Flying the plane at the right altitude is critical.
  2. It focuses your VOC investment. Too often, VOC is conducted among too many stakeholders preventing the team from going deep on understanding unmet needs, motivations, and behaviors among a small but important group of people.
  3. It requires the team to choose early on the opportunities with the greatest prevalence or priority. As a result, the team ideates around a smaller subset of needs and delivers more focused concepts.

With a properly scoped project, a more precisely-defined stakeholder, and ideation focused on the strongest opportunities, it greatly increases the odds that high-quality concepts will emerge.

Ideally, the FEI should be a flow of divergent and convergent activities. Agility is increased when convergent activities follow the aspects of the FEI that are naturally more divergent—especially needs exploration and ideation.

One solution: following qualitative research, conduct a quantitative study among the target customer to determine which needs/problems have the greatest prevalence (or priority) among the end-user. Knowing this will keep your ideation more focused.

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