Concepting the Leading Edge

In most cases consumer input is, or should be, a critical part of the concept development phase. But the deal's off when it comes to identifying breakthrough innovation. The very individuals that later will become hard-core users lack the imagination to envision even the need for the kinds of discontinuous, out-of-the-blue leaps of intuition that disrupt the orderly, predictable evolution of technology.

Better to follow the leaders. Concentrate NPD efforts on discovering who's behind several emerging technologies that are somehow relevant to the corporate mission. Identify the leading edge influentials working the vanguard of the next-big-technology. Get them to share -- with your team and other hotshots from peripheral technologies -- their visions of the commercial applications of the new science they're concocting. From the mind-meld comes an eclectic assortment of weird-science and wow ideas. And the kind of breakthrough innovation that leapfrogs the orderly, predictable kinds of technological evolution.

When it comes to identifying discontinuous forms of innovation, leading edge influentials -- the foremost scientists, brightest academicians and most prominent lead users/gatekeepers working on the forefront of the next-big-technology are the only ones that count. Their impact on the pure-science and technology emerging under their supervision will create the platforms from which first generations of commercial applications will flow.

Although individually the Leading Edge may have considered neither the impact their brainchild will have on converging technologies nor the commercial applications of interest to NPD managers, an interactive exchange between inventors and commercializers seems to precipitate a collection of "what-if..." scenarios that have an uncanny way of becoming real-world realties. From their perceptions of tomorrow's technology it's possible to envision -- today -- pragmatic new product applications that represent first-to-market opportunities.

Identifying the leading edge influentials is a lot like finding needles in a haystack. There aren't many. And there's no convenient list of "Who's Who On the Leading Edge Of Mission Relevant Technology." To create "The List" a networking process augmented by a literature search of scientific journals and published papers is used. The effort asks internal managers, vendor/suppliers, industry watchers, editors, academicians and scientists to identify the individuals they look to for project relevant expertise. Ultimately the networking effort generates a consensus of opinion as to the identity of the elite handful of scientists, academics, gatekeepers and commercial users who are acknowledged by peers to be "the leading edge."

The next step is to get the elite to share their expertise with their colleagues and the client's technical, research and marketing personnel in interactive workshops. The information capture includes assessments of current state-of-the-art and probable next-step developments...visions and scenarios of the future...key concerns...unresolved tech needs...anticipated consumer utility and an unanticipated potpourri of ideas 'n issues. Harnessed by specific inquiries the makers & shakers casually spin off mind-boggling future-forward scenarios as well as real-world solutions to client-identified problems. Ultimately the fusion of pure science, commercial application and end-user reality defines highly innovative -- and eminently workable -- new product concepts. Firm tech specifications. And occasionally on-the-spot product prototypes.

A full decade before current commercial adaptations began appearing on supermarket shelves, the tool identified -- for General Foods -- the potential for "pharmaceutical foods" engineered to promote health & well-being: beta carotene as an oil and oat bran's impact on serum cholesterol...calcium's role in the inhibition of osteoporosis. The tool generated six Photo Refractive Keratectomy (laser sculpting of the cornea) operative/post-operative new product concepts for Allergan's Pharmaceutical division. Developed -- for Colgate -- a hi-tech toothbrush to clean below the gum line and inhibit periodontal disease. Created the billion dollar mini-napkin segment of the feminine hygiene market -- Lightdays by Kotex.

Potential applications for the kinds of discontinuous innovation served by the tool include Canon's ES5000 Eye Control camcorder (user eye-activated focus). Quicken's Intuit (CD-ROM online banking). The Habitrol Nicotine Patch. In the hands of Wall Streeters it could have created Derivatives -- the junk bond of the 90s. The commonality? Until these forms of discontinuous innovation became a tangible reality consumers had not the slightest inkling of the need they served. They were superfluous to concept generation efforts.

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