“I have this idea…” is the typical introductory line of a budding entrepreneur likely told to 99 other people prior to meeting you. Senior leaders want management to be more entrepreneurial. So what is it that makes an entrepreneur successful and how can we infuse our innovation process with that same formula for success?

Embrace an entrepreneur’s passion and inspiration to jumpstart your front-end innovation projects.
Passion guides an entrepreneur. It provides the drive to find inspiration for an idea on which to act – how to make something better or fix some problem of a targeted group. Entrepreneurs like this are on a journey (a discovery) to collect information. They try out the concept on every person they meet and they develop and test the solution.

If you listen to an entrepreneur’s success story, the process he or she went through is iterative and messy; the steps overlap and are not discrete but provide direction. We capture the process as Inspiration, Discovery, Conceptualization and Validation. Our front-end innovation process is inspired from these entrepreneurs and individuals with whom we have worked for over a decade at The Valen Group.

I. Inspiration
It is more than just picking a category, market, segment or other driver for a project. Passion is the motor driving the process. Determining a direction should feel more like a buying and selling process with the core team than a top down directive. If it isn’t an itch that has to be scratched, then it is doomed to mediocrity.

Passion leads inspiration. It can be a mantra, “we will beat competitor x” or it can be idealistic “we will create a better y.” It can be personal, “when I saw my friend with this disease, it drove me to find z.” Finding inspiration takes exploratory time to seek out information, look at the topic broadly and think laterally. It is the time to be open, say yes and see what happens. Once inspiration is found, a successful entrepreneur uses a story that frames the problem and evokes emotion to engage others and enlist their help. The goal is to provide the energy and inspiration that we feel when talking to an entrepreneur committed to a cause.

Creating Inspiration:
Find Passion – need to be passionate about something
Seek Understanding – research competition, existing solutions, analogous solutions solving similar problems in other markets to create a baseline understanding and identify a focus from inspiration
Frame Problem or Opportunity – Generate hypotheses of problems/unmet needs and initial solutions; challenge the assumptions in and basis for framing and take a wide viewpoint
Set an Open and Collaborative Culture – coach the team to be open to ideas (but do not fall in love with early hypotheses), be flexible and open to others’ ideas and insight no matter from whom or where they might come
Tell a Story – find the why of the pursuit; talk and talk about the opportunity until you find the way to tell the story that captures the imagination and motivates people to want to help
Define a Learning Plan – Develop a project plan and communication plan and set decision points to ensure feedback from key sponsors/stakeholders as well as the vast list of people you will amass from the many conversations had and who will provide critical insight or expertise to leverage; be flexible and allow for changes to your plan
II. Discovery
In discovery, act like a detective and follow the clues given by consumers or the targeted group. Create a learning plan to understand the target group context in how they live their life and the problems for which they are seeking improvements (unmet needs). We challenge ourselves to put together the right set of techniques and exercises for deep insight and understanding and realize that the plan must be unique to each learning situation. There are three steps in Discovery:

Learn about Your Target
Understand life’s context with insight such as:

Consumer groups across several segments, typically frequent/experienced users or lead users who are most articulate using exercises to explore purchase and usage habits, understand likes and dislikes
Possibly conduct a segmentation study to provide insight into valuable target groups to serve best that fit the distribution, brands or other competitive advantages of the organization, these segments may be behavioral or need-based and not necessarily demographic
Identify Unmet Needs:
Find problems from a target group that you have a reason and the ability to serve with methods such as:

Ethnographic and non-traditional qualitative techniques and technology (such as in-home/car cameras) to find problems that are unarticulated but observed
Exercises including image associations and other non-verbal techniques and tactile/experience such as the use of products or early state ideas and prototypes
Prioritize Unmet Needs:
The problem must be important and big enough to be worth pursuing. Prioritize unmet needs through:

Qualitative work or a quantitative research study, such as an opportunity analysis from which a priority matrix is presented based upon consumer ratings of importance and level of dissatisfaction
III. Conceptualization
Once the probable set of unmet needs or possible solutions is found, employ concept development practices. Generate initial concepts through informal collaborative sessions or a more formal ideation setting with right mix of people from inside and outside the organization. Developing an idea into a winning concept entails both consumer and business factors:

Consumer Factors for a Concept
Know the motivations and accepted beliefs of consumers
Be able to articulate unmet needs or problems in their language
State a compelling benefit
Provide the support or credibility sufficient for consumers to believe it
Provide something uniquely appealing
Business Factors for a Concept
Concept is valuable – can make a profit
Concept appeals to a broad enough audience; meets investment goals
Have the capabilities or can acquire the capabilities to organize to execute the concept
Concept is hard to copy or imitate (barriers to enter or copy)
Concept is unique from offerings (some competitive advantage)
It may be appropriate to plan for consumer research to understand likes and dislikes of possible solutions as well as narrow options. This could include qualitative group work combined with mock-ups or prototypes or a one of several custom quantitative concept screen methods appropriate to the situation.

IV. Validation
While there is feedback throughout the process, it is worth noting that the front-end innovation steps discussed should integrate and lead us into the traditional product development process to develop and then validate the final product. Final product validation requires testing “Initial purchase trial” and “repeat purchase,” two different points in the purchase process.

Trial is tested by conducting a quantitative concept test designed to emulate the initial purchase decision point and compared to norms or product benchmarks. Customize the design and details. For instance, if the marketing plan does not include television advertising but rather a newspaper coupon insert for a consumer packaged product, then limit copy to emulate those factors with a packaging mock-up and pricing. Usage is tested to judge quality/performance and repeat purchase. An in-market test or soft launch should also be considered and may be a better choice for certain situations or strategy but be sure that the impact (financial and reputation) of a miss-launch is mitigated.