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Problem Solving is Not Innovation

Failure to put in the work will create floundering product launches, dissatisfied customers, and anemic sales growth.

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I’ve developed or managed more than 40 product lines for the North American and global markets. I’ve worked with great teams and individuals at General Electric, Ericsson, Honeywell, Meritor, Schneider Electric, and with the private sector. My work typically includes developing new products, improving development and delivery processes, and auditing past projects to learn how to improve the next opportunity.

When developing a new concept or product, ask the following questions:

  • How do we properly define a new product offering?
  • How do we communicate and market it effectively? 

The answers to these two questions provide the perfect platform from which to launch a new program.

Discovering the Problem

The first step in the development of any new product is discovering the opportunity the market makes available to you. These opportunities are uncovered when you look into the issues, concerns, and the real and perceived problems of your customers.

While studying these issues, think of how they are similar and different, and are they common among customers or unique to a few (or one) of them.

One of the best starting points I’ve found is the question, “What would I want/need if I were in their situation?” Use your experience from similar projects and data from customer interviews to enter into a customer's frame of mind. This process very similar to the Socratic Method, or the “5 Whys” of problem solving. This opens you to concepts that you otherwise may not consider.

The next place to look is at the market and your products’ potential rivals. This is not the time for an in-depth competitive comparison, but for an overview of many possible competitors to get an idea of how the problem is currently being solved, and why current methods may be insufficient.

It is also the time to talk to your customers, potential customers, and your sales force. Your goal is to begin to validate some of the assumptions you made during the previous two steps. These can be brief conversations that touch on the high-level benefits and functions, because you will do more in-depth customer interviews later in the process. For now, seek input to help you discover the market's needs and wants; save the details for later.

I will caution you that the customer isn’t always right about what they need. They know they have a problem; they might know what they want; and they may have a working solution for it. However, if they were satisfied, then they would not be seeking new offers that promise improvement. Your job is to decide if an incremental solution is sufficient or is more innovation warranted? If Henry Ford had listened to his customers, he would have built a faster horse, not the first successful automobile company. What can you do to change the market?

Defining the Solution

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” - Charles Kettering

The work of discovery discussed above should provide some concepts of what to create for your customers and now it is time to define the concept. There are as many ways to achieve this as there are product managers. The common name for the document that defines the requirements of the market is the Market Requirements Document (MRD).

The MRD is broad in scope and demonstrates how the customers will use and benefit from the product and how the development and sale of the product will impact your company. Create a comprehensive, detailed treatment of the subject matter in the market requirements document. Write it assuming it will be delivered only in written form and in-person discussions with the project teams (engineers, production team, finance and sales departments) is not possible. This forces rigor and clarity into the details, and makes the entire development process more effective.

While the MRD is the key document in defining the product or service, the more frequently you can meet with the development teams and approvers, the more success you will have in the implementation phase. A written document is a one dimensional representation of the concept. A telephone conversation is two dimensional and more effective. The ultimate option is a face-to-face discussion with the the project team. These “three dimensional” meetings allow for the free flow of information, and emotions, and are most effective when selling an idea to any “buyer.”


We should not view new products as simple evolutions of their predecessor. Each product line has its own unique characteristics, customer base, and business model.

Find key customers that have a proven record of success in the field in which you are investing, and spend time with them learning what they do and why they are successful. 

Do not simply solve their current problems–anticipate where their business is going and use your knowledge to create a new and innovative product that more completely solves their problem, and raises the bar in your industry.

The hard work and diligence required by this process will be returned to your firm many times. Failure to do the work will create floundering product launches, dissatisfied customers, and anemic sales growth.

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