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Last week, Enterprise Innovation hosted a roundtable discussion of 12 manufacturing innovators to identify new technologies and how companies should approach them. With expertise along the entire supply chain, from production to logistics to consumer marketing, the panel reviewed the recently published 2017 Gartner Hype Curve of emerging technologies.

While our innovators all had their eyes on emerging platforms like IoT, virtual reality and machine learning, they believe innovation leaders should focus first on the experience they deliver to consumers, rather than any particular technology.

Win on Customer Experience, Not Technology

There are many ways to determine which emerging technologies your company should explore, but there’s one defining lens to use when considering a new product idea: is this good for the customer? When Kevin Lewis of First Data spoke at our recent Enterprise Entrepreneurship Series, he explored that products built on emerging technologies are intrinsically limited by nature of being unproven. They may be shiny and exciting for your innovation team to play with, but customers rarely care for new and shiny. They want products that make their lives easier.

Of course, some products can succeed with a pool of early adopters, but innovators need to have a plan to scale a product idea from that early success.

Find Your Smallest Viable Market

Just because the enterprise has the resources to launch a product based on new technologies to the widest possible market doesn’t necessarily mean it should. When Coca-Cola launched its new Freestyle machines in 2009, it limited the initial rollout to the United States, because an international launch required massive amounts of legal compliance, new regulations, international taxes and more. Emerging technology is inherently unproven, which makes wide product launches a huge gamble for innovators.

New products based on emerging technology should launch to markets small enough to engender passion, yet large enough to be meaningful to the bottom-line with room to grow. Finding that balance can be difficult for innovators, and it requires some cover from the top of the company.

Align Culture and Leadership

All innovation requires alignment and support in the C-Suite and across the company, but embracing new technologies requires a certain balance of leadership and an innovative company culture. Our manufacturing leaders identified three core ways enterprises can find that balance:

  • Maintain Your Team. There are many models of innovation management within the enterprise, yet too many of them bring a team together to build a brilliant solution and then pushes that successful team into other departments in the company. While that may spread innovation knowledge and process, it breaks apart a team with a track record of success. For many companies, building and maintaining the right team is better than generating a backlog of ideas. The right team can find success with a multitude of ideas, but companies rarely maintain consistency in the team most important to long-term success.
  • Find Comfort in Risk. Innovators and executives talk constantly about de-risking through innovation and experimentation. Too often, that means de-risking the accountability of owning a project and not actually minimizing the risk of an investment. Rather than being empowered to deal with risk to a certain degree, mid-level managers and compliance officers are empowered to say, “No,” and kill a project. Innovation requires a cultural shift that tolerates risk.
  • Work on the Fringe. In the human body, antibodies prioritize threats closest to the body’s core before mitigating risks on the fringe. Like it or not, corporate compliance offices act just like antibodies, often killing “risky” innovation projects before they have a chance to find their feet. Part of accepting the risk of innovation means allowing change agents to work on the fringe of the company, operating outside of the standard P&L requirements with the leeway to fail fast and learn. With that said, innovation may work best on the fringes, but innovators must be careful to remain visible and deliver value throughout the organization.

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