Discovery: The Not-So-Complicated, Unvarnished Truth



There is no such thing as a good idea! Every idea starts out bad, ugly and quite frankly a bother. Your industry is the hardest place in the world to innovate and you should get radical credit for even the most modest change. Resources are sponged up by zombie projects that we all know will never see the light of day. And, no one else in the world struggles with a sales force that sells products before they exist

and then lobbies the president for resources directly. 

By Christopher W. Miller, PhD, NPDP


In a six sigma world failure is your friend. You stand out like a clown at a funeral. It takes 3000 ideas to generate 1 market success. Of these 300 are generally documented; 100 or so make it to patent disclosure or early stage definition; about one-sixth of these become resourced early stage projects; 3 to 9 later stage projects; 1.3 to 1.6 launches and for all of this failure you get 1 market success (Research & Technology Management, May-June, 1997). If you have a structured development process, 5 in 1000 of your ideas will make it into gate 0.  If you don’t have a structured process that probably means you are so busy chasing your tail that you don’t have time to read the rest of this article. But just in case, a bit of information can help, here are some first thoughts about the Discovery phase of NPD.

How do product ideas form? How do they establish themselves in an organization and become legitimate contenders for the resources necessary to move into the NPD Pipeline? There are just two approaches:

  • Organic – those ideas that emerge over time or are thrust at you by the market; are generally understood as a possibility; they emerge having survived the organizational antibodies, that often effect strategy
  • Directed – those ideas that emerge from a process that is strategy directed responding to a specific leadership directive and have been derived from market or technology insight

Directed processes come in two flavors:

  • Due Diligence Innovation – bread and butter, ever-green product life cycle management efforts
  • New Opportunity Spaces –  new businesses, product lines and platforms emerging from a significant market or technical discontinuity (Hunting for Hunting Grounds, Chapter 2, PDMA Tool Book 1)

Probably 80% of your time is spent on directed due diligence innovation. Due diligence and new opportunity spaces require many of the same skills, tools and processes. The differences come in time, scale and senior team participation.

In the 1980’s Donald Reinertsen suggested that nearly half of the lifetime value of a product idea is in the pre-gate zero space. This is before the organizational will to implement forms around the idea. The delay is the fundamental problem with “organic” front end processes. Ideas float at a pace tolerable to the organization’s culture (in some places this speed feels down right glacial). The opportunity loss of taking on an idea when it first emerges vs. when it has developed organizational momentum can indeed be equivalent to, as Reinertsen suggests, ½ of the life time product value. The NPD clock starts ticking when there is a need someplace in the world that can be identified and a technology someplace that can respond to that need.

The trick with structured discovery is to get beyond being reactive to current events. Your goal is to get out of the blocks early enough with your discovery work to cut into the “unidentified opportunity” space. Structured due diligence discovery may yield bigger better ideas but it does not have to, to be a success.  When building a discovery process your goal should be to double the life time value of your products and services by launching at the point of the need and technology intersection not at the point of your company’s cultural comfort.

Organic discovery can work in highly fluid cultures with a penetrating market sense, seamlessly connected to aggressive and involved operations and R&D efforts. Founder directed, lone cowboy and champion driven discovery can thrive in these organizations. Sometimes this stance can even pervade an entire market, (i.e., when the next generation is preordained by Moore’s Law, maybe we don’t need ideas). In the early days of distributed electricity, low cost internal combustion engines, micro-processors and standard computer operating and language systems the ideas are obvious and important. Unfortunately, we don’t all live in this space. Fred Joeffe, a P&G Director of R&D, spoke to PDMA as he was retiring and said, “If you want really tough innovation, take on finding meaningfully different 100th anniversary TIDE™!”

Most of us can relate to Fred. So here is a skeletal discovery approach from the 2012 edition of the PDMA Hand Book, Getting Lightning to Strike: Ideation and Concept Creation (It will also be covered in detail at a PDMA International conference workshop):

  • Strategy directed charter
  • Team formation and training
  • Value chain needs and technology fact finding and forecasting
  • Ideation, rough screening and concept creation
  • Concept shaping (feasibility and customer)
  • Refined screening
  • Preparation for the development phase (your gate zero sell in)

At each step of this discovery map there are tools, techniques and resources that can be helpful. More importantly as you hang tools on this simple design you can make the process your own. Do this with fact based best practices; for example in the needs stage:

Voice-of-the-Customer tool Rated Effectiveness Popularity
Customer visit teams 6.6 31%
Ethnography 6.8 12%
Focus Groups 6.4 26%
Lead User Analysis 6.3 24%
Customer helps design product 6.0 17%
Customer Brainstorming 5.9 17%
Customer Advisory Board 5.8 17%
Community of enthusiasts 5.7 9%

 Cooper and Edgett, Visions Magazine (PDMA.ORG) March 2008; n=160

PDMA Visions,, NPDP Certified Conferences, Certification Training and the Journal of Product and Innovation Management are loaded with answers.

As you build your discovery process there are a few things to keep in mind. These have consistently proven their ability to separate success from failure.

  • You must be strategy directed.
  • You must have a slave like devotion to the voice of the customer
  • You must have a cross-functional team
  • You must have an agreed to process, that is fast, fun, flexible and fact based

I would add to this list, the proper mental stance,  for you, on your team and in your company. Here is some advice about stance from a master, Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1510, as told by Michael Gelb in his best seller, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day:

  • Curiosita: An insatiably curious approach to life
  • Dimonstratzione: A commitment to test knowledge through experience
  • Sensazione: The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to clarify experience
  • Sfumato: A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty
  • Arte/Scienza: The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination
  • Corporalita: The cultivation of ambidexterity, fitness, and poise
  • Connessione: A recognition and appreciation for the connectedness of all things and phenomena; “systems thinking”

We are not the first to travel the innovation path nor will we be the last. Whether or not you get the respect and resources you deserve in your organization, the unvarnished truth is that new product discovery facilitation is a survival skill that you are going to need. If your current employer does not appreciate your skill, you are likely to be working for someone else in the near future. Perhaps your new employer will.


A possible chart might be the 2×2 up front.


Due Diligence New Opportunity
Organic Customer order,  sales force or pet project directed Founder or CEO driven
Directed Cross functional-managed discovery process with team leaders Cross-functional managed discovery process with company leaders

New Product Discovery comes in different flavors. Due diligence or new opportunity is a strategic decision. Organic versus directed is dependent on your industries standard and your company’s culture.

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