How Fast Is Too Fast?


“Fail fast, fail often, move on, and no recriminations…” or perhaps there is another point of view.  It is important to know when to cut your losses, but it is also important to give ideas “hang-time.” You can always say “no” in the name of efficiency, yet keeping an idea up in the air, allowing it to float, can yield value. American troops returning to their factories after both WWI and WWII, lobbied Hershey’s Chocolate to introduce European style chocolate to the US market. “It is a much better quality chocolate – richer, creamier,” they argued. It was tested with American consumers, and it failed, again and again over 70 years. I suspect something similar occurred at Mars. In the mid-1980’s European style chocolates started to have some success among American consumers. Armed with this old idea that had been knocking around forever, Mars bought Dove in 1986, and Hershey’s ventured with Cadbury. A few years later, in 1992, Hershey’s came out with its own formulation, called Symphony.

If someone had said in a Hershey’s brainstorming session in 1980, “I wish we would introduce a European style chocolate,” the answer would have been, “That old idea! We’ve been there and done that – next.” It is important to know when to cut your losses and move on, and do so with the minimum investment possible. But here’s the rub: how fast is too fast? There is a strategic value in the bank of ideas that make sense but are not ready for the world – or the world is not ready for them.

True innovation does not start with the generation of the idea. It starts with a change in the observable market, in the available technology, or in your strategic view of the market or technology. As these events occur ideas can inform and enlighten us about the possibilities engendered by these changes. This requires a bit of vision, the willingness to look at possibilities that do not yet exist and a shift in your paradigm.

We find in our work that given 150 beginning product concepts, a third will rise to the top, and a third will drop away. The middle third is interesting to study. My theory is that this is where real “newness” lies hidden. The middle third is also where those ideas we tried, and did not make the cut, often sit. It is okay that the top third is what is given serious consideration for the current new product development portfolio. Don’t be surprised if you feel that there is not much new in this first third. Be fast and furious with this set. Take your time with the middle third though.

New concepts often fail because we can’t build them or can’t explain them. The WD-40 new product hit, their No-Mess Pen™, owes a debt to the market success of the Tide-To-Go™ pen. Consumers instantly understood the concept and fed it back to us with phrases “Oh, I see, it’s like that Tide pen. Sure, that sounds handy. I’d probably buy a couple if the price is right.” Or looking at the other side: technology. How many high performing ideas have failed, not because it can’t be done, but because the capital cost to build it was determined to be prohibitive? Time marches on; consumers change as does your equipment. Those middle third ideas will become boring old friends at some point but that might also just be the point at which they become a real possibility. Give them hang-time.

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