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product development in many industries. Moreover, the percentage of ideas that make it from lab to consumer is low. One factor that affects the probability of success is how innovators look at a given development challenge or problem.

Getting the best ideas from the R&D lab to consumers is a central challenge for new product development in many industries. Moreover, the percentage of ideas that make it from lab to consumer is low. One factor that affects the probability of success is how innovators look at a given development challenge or problem.

To illustrate, let’s consider the age old saying, “build a better mousetrap.” The mousetrap way of thinking has at least two severely limiting assumptions: First, it assumes that the only answer to the project or problem can be found within the technology field of mousetraps.  Second, it defines the goal in terms of the solution (the “how”) rather than in terms of what the consumer needs (the “what”). This way of thinking can therefore be an obstacle to the development of newer, better and more effective ways to meet the consumer’s needs. In fact, it often doesn’t meet the consumer’s needs at all.

In our hypothetical “mousetrap” case, what is the fundamental consumer need? It’s a house free of mice, not a better mousetrap. The table below illustrates how this subtle difference in how we think can dramatically change how we approach subsequent product development:

Problem Definition 1: there are mice in the houseProblem Definition 2: need a better mousetrap
Approaches to solve problem:
– hire exterminator
– buy hungry cats
– move
Approaches to solve problem:
– mousepaper (U.S. 2,962,836)
– multiple snares in 1 trap (U.S. 101,620)
– electric power harpoon (U.S. 4,669,216)
Benefits
– more diverse approach than just devices
– higher probability of solving entrenched problem
– more risky but higher potential for novelty
Benefits
– certainty (improve on proven/core technology)
– known supply source for components
– strong technical know-how in one technical area
Challenges
– initially unknown cost or supplier
– more groundwork before you start development
– may rely on competency external to company
Challenges
– lots of competition in technology/product form
– low probability of performance breakthrough
– narrow approach to solve problem

Now, let’s look at the “performance” of innovation for this case.  As you can see from the table below, while there has been a lot of “invention” in mousetraps as measured by patents, marketplace performance suggests the consumer-based problem definition tracks more accurately with long-term consumer satisfaction and growth of the product or service in the marketplace.

Approach/Solution
Number of Patents Issued
Annual Sales
Mousetrap device
> 5000
$25 million
Professional Extermination
NA/service
$350 million

In conclusion, innovation that starts with an analysis of the consumer’s real-life needs and desired experiences (the “what”) can often allow innovators to devise more successful solutions than innovation that starts by assuming a better version of an existing technology is needed (the “how”).

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