The Invisible Success Factors in Product Innovation - Cooper - Article

Invisible Success Factors

The critical success factors in product innovation

Research has uncovered two types or classes of success factors. The first deals with doing the right projects; the second with doing projects right

Type 1

Doing the right projects is captured by a number of external or environmental success factors over which the project team has little control. These include characteristics of the new product’s market, technologies, and competitive situation, along with the ability to leverage internal competencies. Although not within the control of the project team, these are nonetheless useful factors to consider when selecting and prioritizing projects.

Type 2

These success factors emphasize doing projects right and focus on process factors or action items—things the project team does (or too often does not do). And they are the invisible ones. But these actions are controllable and discretionary, so they are seen from time to time. For examples see page 2

What the winners have thought us

Solid up-front homework—to define the product and justify the project. Successful project teams undertake superior up-front homework (more time, money, and effort; and better quality work) than do failure teams

Voice of the customer—a slave-like dedication to the market and customer inputs throughout the project.

Product advantage—differentiated, unique benefits, superior value for the customer. One of the top success factors is delivering a differentiated product with unique customer benefits and superior value for the user. Such superior products have five times the success rate, more than four times the market share, and four times the profitability as products lacking this ingredient, according to one study

Sharp, stable, and early product definition—before development begins. A failure to define the product—its target market; the concept, benefits and positioning; and its requirements, features and specs—before development begins is a major cause of new product failure and serious delays in time to market

A well-planned, adequately resourced, and proficiently executed launch. The need for a quality launch—well planned, properly resourced, and well executed—should be obvious.

Tough go/kill decision points or gates—funnels, not tunnels. In too many companies, projects move far into development without serious scrutiny: once a project begins, there is very little chance that it will ever be killed. The result is many marginal projects are approved, and scarce resources are misallocated.

Accountable, dedicated, supported cross-functional teams with strong leaders. Good organizational design means projects that are organized as a cross-functional team, led by a strong project leader, accountable for the entire project from beginning to end, dedicated, and focused (as opposed to spread over many projects), and where top management is committed to the project

An international orientation—international teams, multi-country market research, and global or “glocal” products. An international orientation also means adopting a transnational new product process, utilizing cross-functional teams with members from different countries, and gathering market information from multiple international markets as an input to the new product’s design.

Why winners are rare

Seven possible reasons, or “blockers” are offered by managers for why the success factors are invisible and why projects seem to go wrong, or take too long, or aren’t well carried out. And each requires an antidote or specific action to overcome it:

1. Ignorance: our people simply don’t know what should be done in a well-executed project.

Some companies’ leadership teams and project teams simply don’t understand what’s required to make new products successful. That is, they lack a complete and balanced perspective on what a well-run project looks like—what the important tasks and events are.

Solution: Processes; roadmaps, blueprints, or game plans for driving new products to market. They lay out the key steps and activities, stage by stage; they define decision points or gates, complete with go/kill and prioritization criteria; and they build in best practices.

2. Lack of skills: we don’t know how to do the key tasks

For example, the market research know-how and business analysis acumen are missing; and we often underestimate what’s involved in these tasks.

The needed skills and knowledge are missing. Today’s complex projects require a multitude of technical and people skills to be an effective, well-rounded team leader or player.


  • Team training - Too many companies assume that their employees will simply rise to the occasion when it comes to new products. Management assigns people to project teams from a variety of functions in the company, but few have received formal training in the area of product innovation.

  • True cross-functional teams - Lacking a renaissance man or woman as a team member or leader, the next best thing is a cross-functional team comprised of members from various functions and with complementary skills

  • Groom project team leaders – Project leadership is an acquired skill and typically does not materialize on one’s first project. One reason for the paucity of exceptional project leaders is that management does not give them the chance to mature—management typically promotes them to more lucrative jobs after a successful project.

Define standards of performance expected. This is perhaps the most difficult of the four solutions. It begins with an understanding of what constitutes best practices.

3. Faulty or misapplied new product process:

We havea process, but it doesn’t work: it’s missing key elements; it’s laden with bureaucracy; and it’s over applied.

Missing success factors;

BureaucracyThe process encourages much non-value added activity.

Bullet-proofing for gates – The process has become an end in itself in some businesses, as teams go to great lengths to prepare for gate meetings.

Too many gates, too many stages – More is not necessarily better. The typical proficient new productprocess contains about four or five stages and gates (not counting the ideation stage and post-launch review). Much more than that, and bureaucracy sets in.

Inflexibility – The new product process is a risk management tool. If the project’s risk is high, then one should adhere fairly closely to the prescriptions of the roadmap. But if risk is low, then detours designed to speed projects through certainly are recommended.

Management control system – A final and serious process deficiency is that the business’s development process has become a command and control system rather than a superhighway to the marketplace. In short, senior management views the process as a way to keep them engaged in projects—to keep them informed of what’s going on and to enable them to interject their demands and decisions, and, worse, to micromanage projects


If a new product process is more than 2 years old, it probably needs updating and fixing. Conduct a post-launch audit of your past projects and find out what made them successes or failures. Next, undertake a critical review of your new product process. Finally, get rid of the time wasters and speed bumps in your process. Take some completed projects and work with the team on a retrospective analysis of their project.

4. Too confident: we already know the answers, so why do all this extra work?

5. A lack of discipline: no leadership.

One of the problems in product innovation is that many of the prescribed actions in a well-run project are discretionary or optional. Often the lack of discipline comes from the top. The leadership team of the business “talks the talk,” but doesn’t walk the talk. Indeed, the leadership team is often the first to break rank—to break discipline


  • The leaders must understand the vital role of new products in their business. Too often, senior management treats new products as an afterthought. Senior management is so tied up with day-to-day business issues and the pressures of achieving quarterly financial results that they seem relatively distant from new products.

  • The leaders must demonstrate leadership. And they must lead by example, practicing discipline and adherence to the principles that underlie best practices in product innovation

  • Install a process manager. There has never been a successful implementation of a new product process without a process manager or facilitator in place! No process, no matter how well designed and needed it is, will ever implement itself. It needs someone to make it happen. This person is the process manager; and for larger businesses, this is a full-time position. Indeed, the best performing businesses have incorporated process facilitation into their new product efforts

6. Big hurry: we’re in a rush, so we cut corners!

Solution: Recognize the need for cycle time reduction. But also recognize that some things done in the interest of saving time have exactly the opposite effect.

7. Too many projects and not enough resources: there’s a lack of money and people to get the job done.

Most businesses have too many projects and not enough resources to do them properly. This is the result of two management failures: (1) management doesn’t provide the necessary resources to achieve the business’s new product goals; or (2) they approve too many projects for the limited resources available. Indeed, the performance of project teams often is jeopardized by senior management.


Strive for funnels, not tunnels! That is, move to a funneling process, where many concepts enter the process, but at each successive stage and after new information is delivered, a certain percentage of projects are cut. To do this, build tough go/kill decision points into your new product projects in the form of gates

Eleven action items

The ABCs that underlie new product success have been identified and should be clear to everyone. But blockers get in the way and consistently make these success factors invisible. The solutions highlighted in this article are now integrated into eleven action items, beginning with the leadership team of the business:

  1. Your leaders must lead

  2. Design and implement a new product process

  3. Overhaul process

  4. Define standards of performance expected

  5. Install a process manager to oversee the process

  6. Build in tough go/kill decision points

  7. Use true cross-functional teams

  8. Provide training

  9. Seek cycle time reduction

  10. Move to portfolio management

  11. Cut back the number of projects underway


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