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Alan Cucknell explains why a structured approach to assessing the potential of early-stage innovation ideas is a better gauge than relying on first-glance consumer insight.

While I’m not particularly proud of it, I’ve recently been cooking a lot of oven chips at home. Like thousands of others, I’ve found oven meals are a great way to get dinner ready while juggling other tasks around the house. And who doesn’t love chips (or ‘fries’ for any American readers)?

What could be easier – remove from freezer (amazing, I don’t even need to remember to get them out in the morning), spread a layer of chips straight on the tray, cook for ten minutes, remove from the oven and turn the hot chips over… oops! Actually it’s not that easy to consistently turn a layer of chips at 200°C and then return them neatly to the oven. It’s made far harder (and messier) by my habit of tessellating the chips on the baking tray to make sure I get as many chips as possible on a single tray…

Given the other steps in the oven chip experience, it should be easy – but it’s not. I end up handling the chips individually (which is fiddly and takes ages), with chips spilt on the floor (what a waste) and chips overlapping at different heights making it harder to cook them evenly – and inevitably burning a few each time.

My frustration with this apparently simple process may have led to my single greatest idea – ‘oven chip rolls’: the frozen chips come lightly bound to a side of grease paper. The chips are optimally located (most chips per oven area) and separated (just the right space for best cooking). Tightly rolled-up, the chip-loaded paper is space-efficiently passed through the supply chain, retail operation and home freezer. Unrolled, a pre-printed portion size can be torn off and placed paper down on the baking tray. Half-way through cooking, the paper is flipped which turns the chips over – no spilling or finger burning. At this point the paper-chip bond is weakened and is easily removed by peeling it along the length of the stiffened, cooked chips… the result: 100% evenly cooked chips, all neatly placed on the baking tray making the best use of the space. Brilliant!

So I’ve got a killer idea that’s been created from real consumer need. It will deliver a new product that’s well-differentiated in the market. If it’s not feasible as described, surely it’s only a matter of the right R&D? My friends and family want it now – and most importantly – it’ll make great chips! I’m going to be rich?!

Once I might have thought so – innovation is all about great ideas, right?

Of course, it’s much more than that. My idea is only one of all the possible ideas that meet the same needs – each with a different trade-off between the consumer experience, technical considerations and implications for the business. And the emotional and functional benefits my idea provides are likely to meet only a handful of the needs that an oven chip lover has – some of which are likely to be more important and less well satisfied than my personal desire for getting more chips per plate. And even if chip lovers love this idea – the potential changes to manufacturing line, material requirements, packaging formats, cost, retail display and many, many other things might scupper the idea after considerable costly development.

So starting with an attractive idea, however great, and then investing to create a technically-feasible solution and a viable revenue model (as the conventional ‘fuzzy’ front-end implies) – all seems rather backwards to me.

Given the inherent uncertainty of early stage ideas, I’m an advocate of taking a structured, evidence-led approach to first prioritise the ‘job’ consumers are trying to do. And to understand for those jobs: what’s possible (in this market and others), and what would be valuable for the business. When we use this ‘validated innovation framework’ to create better chip ideas – we know that those ideas will deliver against real market and business needs.

Whether we are leading billion-dollar brands or one-person start-ups, none of us have enough time and money to invest in lower-priority ideas. While the ‘validated innovation framework’ isn’t a guarantee of success – it is a great way to make sure you’re working on those opportunities with the greatest potential upsides and downsides you can manage – not just the ‘fuzzy’ ideas that happened to come first. So I guess it’s back to the oven for my chip idea…

If you’d like to know more about the benefits of using CDP’s ‘jobs to be done’ research approach to inform your next innovation, please contact Alan at hello@cambridge-design.co.uk.

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