Whatever Happened to Courage and Creativity in New Product Development?

It's either you or the competition. Don't be afraid to cannibalize in the name of innovative progress!

It’s either you or the competition. Don’t be afraid to cannibalize in the name of innovative progress!

Frustrated directors of NPD from diverse companies are reporting underwhelming results from new product offerings.  Diagnosis: Evidence of risk-averse leadership and use of processes that limit creativity and deliver only incremental ideas into the pipeline.

Let’s think of these usual suspects as ‘parental controls’ on new product offspring.  Under their control, offspring diminish in stature in the eyes of consumers as one new introduction after another is hard to tell apart. The market just cannot get that excited about offspring judged to be an appropriate, incremental upgrade. Corporate resources of time, talent and money are consumed nurturing these underperformers. The result is frustrated stakeholders and another black eye for new product developers.

There is nothing wrong with incremental innovation. It is the essential due diligence of product managers for extending lines and building brands. So what’s lacking? The courage to cannibalize! If corporate leadership does not have the courage to cannibalize existing product with an offering that is unique and different, then a competitor certainly will.

One story of corporate courage to cannibalize comes from an area that is not on many product developers’ radar screens — agricultural equipment. Some industries are more conservative than others. The farm equipment industry is in that category, if for no other reason than the purchase cycle is long. Yet, the senior level of this company had the courage to invest in what they hoped would be a game-changing innovation. And here’s the secret: they did it recognizing that it would cannibalize the company’s existing product. Without that realization, the commitment of resources for new product development would have been plowing, turning, cutting and threshing in the same worn furrows. Their courage to cannibalize resulted in growing their market share from 35% to 65%.

When new product development processes bypass a creativity component, the default result is a low threshold of acceptability (low hanging fruit) idea. Many well-reasoned front end processes are excellent but fail decisively to deliver breakthrough i.e. new-to-the-company or new-to-the-world ideas. Without introducing creativity, what will stretch developers to push the initial threshold of acceptability in the idea generation stage? It certainly won’t happen in subsequent stages.


As Einstein said, if an idea isn’t at first absurd, there is no hope for it. Creativity can deliver the absurd idea, or in the words of Collins and Porras, ‘the big hairy audacious idea’. In the framework of Innovation Focus, this is the idea that sits in the top right-hand box of a matrix where the x axis is current, emerging and new technology and the y axis is current, emerging and new need. Appropriate use of creative problem solving tools and techniques can help populate the top right box with an idea for a future that is a big stretch, breakthrough or radical.

Process rigor and discipline is not antithetical to creativity; it is essential. Without it brainstorming is most likely to yield only close-in ideas and the problem can be compounded by premature enactment — settling too soon on an idea to take forward that results in insufficiently differentiated or needed new products or services.  So, to enhance your existing processes for developing new products and services, bring (back!) the rigor, discipline and playfulness of creativity. And, dare to cannibalize!


For those who want to be reminded of the genesis of creative problem solving as a discipline, you will remember that it started to emerge in the 1940’s when Alex Osborne (BBDO) and Professor Merle Crawford (founder of the Product Development and Management Association/PDMA) recognized the need to optimize creativity for new idea generation. Sidney Parnes, founder of the Creative Education Foundation at SUNY Buffalo and of the Creative Problem Solving Institute, helped formalize creative problem solving as a process with tools and techniques. Many practitioners have enhanced the rigor, discipline and fun of creative problem solving and have trained and encouraged corporate America to include creative problem solving as a best practice, not only at the fuzzy front end, but wherever there is any problem worth solving.

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