I often tell my clients that innovating is like being a gardener: When you use the right tools at the right time, amazing things happen. But if you use the wrong tools at the wrong time, you’ll end up disappointed.

For instance, Stimulated Test Markets (STMs) are a very common tool used as part of the stage-gate process. While the usefulness of the STM is hard to argue, they become toxic when applied at the wrong time or in the wrong way, killing great ideas before they have the chance to grow.

So how does an innovator know what tools to use and when to use them?

Any successful garden goes through a life cycle: spring is a time for planting and nourishing, summer is a time for growth, autumn brings maturity, and even though most gardens are dormant in winter, this part of the life cycle is crucial for the long-term success of the garden. Innovation tends to follow a similar cycle and below I outline the best research tools for each of these stages.

SPRING & SUMMER – Plant Your Seeds of Innovation and Help Them Grow

A successful garden requires planning to set the stage for future success – getting the soil ready, applying fertilizer, planting seeds, watering, etc.

Similarly, early stage innovation success is all about nourishment of consumer insights and ideas. Often called the “fuzzy front end,” your innovation efforts should focus on gaining deep knowledge of consumer needs and wants.

innovation garden
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At this stage, you’re using the right innovation tools if they allow you to interact directly with consumers (workshops, ethnographies, qualitative exploration). Best practice is to explore deeply and creatively with consumers to allow the seed of one idea to blossom into many ideas.

Most important, avoid the temptation to prune your innovation garden too soon. At this stage, it’s all about filling your innovation funnel and sometimes the idea that appears to be most likely to fail surprises you.

AUTUMN – Prepare Your Innovation Garden for the Future

In the fall, your garden has matured and it is time to make decisions on what is ready to harvest.

Similarly, your innovation ideas should mature into refined concepts, reflective of the way in which they will be launched. Most important is committing to an objective way to make decisions on what continues and what is pruned.

Traditionally, organizations turn to more quantitative tools to help guide this decision making process. Test markets, STMs, and the volumetric analyses associated with them provide the objective compass needed to make these hard decisions.

More recently, I’m seeing clients turn to a hybrid approach that combines quantitative with some qualitative elements to connect with consumers to optimize innovations and, in some cases, drive decisions to stop the innovation from further development. Pop up communities are an excellent way to involve consumers quickly and efficiently in the refinement/optimization process.

WINTER – Dormant Doesn’t Mean Innovation is Dead

Although your garden appears to be dormant in the winter, it’s actually being rejuvenated and preparing for the next season.

From an innovation perspective, there’s a lot to be learned from the process of conceiving, developing, refining, and launching new products. Unfortunately, most of my clients don’t take the time to capture “lessons learned” from their innovation efforts (both the successes and the failures).

Many companies are discovering one of the best sources of new product ideas are actually old new product ideas (i.e., ones that were considered many years ago but didn’t launch). Past barriers to launch may shift, consumer needs can change, and/or the competitive landscape has transformed. Regardless of what happened, it’s much more difficult to leverage past knowledge without a systemic way of capturing learnings.

Obviously, innovating doesn’t follow a neat linear path like the life cycle of a garden; innovators are challenged to manage several new product initiatives in different stages of development. Regardless of the stage they’re in, be sure to nurture your innovation garden using the right tools at the right time and you’ll dramatically improve your chances of success.

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