What makes a New Product – Observation or Imagination?

I have been invited to design, develop and deliver a course on New Product Development, for young minds at the collegiate level, in the coming week. I personally jumped at this opportunity with the hope that we may be able to inspire few more minds to think of entrepreneurship as a career option.  Since most of the students will be from a non-science background, it made the design more challenging.

A question that came to my mind was – What should be the objective of a course,  that teaches new product development?  As I discussed this with a few stakeholders and sponsors, the answers seemed obvious:  New Products.

As I sat back with my team and developed the program I realized that we can only inspire product thinking and train the entrepreneurial mind on the science aspects of the development process.  Through my experience and current discussions I have come to believe that this program should deliver two things instead of one. First is the skill of developing and taking to market a product idea. Second is coming up with new product idea in itself.

My honest guess is that most people who pass out of similar programs would spend more time doing the first rather than the second. And at the same time, it is very difficult to find those people who want to do the second.

While the knowledge of the first activity is fairly easier to deliver ; even sharing of thoughts on second is quite challenging. At the root of trying to trigger the second activity lies a fundamental skill namely observation.  While many may rate imagination higher over observation in product ideation, I feel the latter plays a critical role in turning good ideas into great products!

There are enough examples in history to show that non-opportunity focused creative products failing in the market. Not only do these products fail, but drown along with them lots of resources and a large amount of inspiration.  Hence one of the key things that need to be taught for people who focus on new product identification and development is opportunity sighting and constant observation of the environment.

Very often opportunity sighting and its related skills (observing patterns, trends, surveys, watching consumers etc) are arduous and uninteresting especially to students. They would typically want more action oriented learning like creative ideation, putting together a product, coming up with catchy marketing ideas etc. They however cringe from the work related to identifying the first and the last activity in any good product based business – opportunity sighting and making the actual sale.

It is then not surprising that at the end of the course the students often come up with fantastically creative ideas – which are destined to be commercial failures. One can also easily extrapolate this to many products that have met with an early demise in the real market – and find a set of founding team so besotted by the idea that they forgot all about its saleability to a customer.

While we know it would be an uphill task to keep the attention of young energetic minds to rather heavy task of environment scanning and opportunity analysis, we are keen on delivering the payload!