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July 19th, 2016

Design Your Way to the Victory Lap

Lessons for product innovators from the Tour de France

Product innovation is an endurance sport. On the course to take a new product from sketch to reality, there are many twists, turns, and bumps in the road. Ideas are researched, planned, strategized, and tested. And tested again. (Any experienced entrepreneur will tell you, the road to success is paved with many broken mockups and prototypes.) As I recall the lessons I’ve learned from the successes and failures, potholes and summits, of a 10-year career in product innovation, watching the Tour de France peloton streaming by on TV, I can’t help but draw a parallel between product innovation and the most enduring of endurance sporting events, the Tour de France. Today’s innovators could learn some important lessons from the champions des Champs-Élysées. But don’t worry, you don’t need to know anything about cycling (or speak French).

Here’s an example

In the Tour de France, cyclists ride together in tight groups—lining up directly behind one another to reduce wind drag. Each member takes a turn at the front of the group and “pulls” the team behind them for a brief period. Teams of cyclists working together in a “paceline” like this are vastly more efficient than a solo rider.

A champion is only as good as his team

Just like the team paceline, a product innovation project needs a complete team supporting it to succeed in a fast-paced, evolving marketplace. Consider all the specialists needed to bring an idea to market: ergonomic and industrial design, mechanical engineering, design for manufacture, tooling design, manufacture and assembly, branding, marketing, legal, and so on. This is not just true for the Apples and IKEAs who have concurrent product innovation cycles, and multiple design and marketing teams. In order to be competitive, everyone from mid-sized manufacturers to garage entrepreneurs must rely on a dedicated team and network of partners to bring innovation to life.

In product innovation, as in the Tour de France, there are no solo champions, only multi-disciplinary teams made up of many specialists, each contributing to the product’s success.

Make sure you’ve got a good strategy

The Tour de France is not one race, but many—a total of 21 day-long stages. A “stage-win”, as it’s called, is a prestigious victory. The rider who finishes all 21 stages in the shortest time wins the Yellow Jersey, the pinnacle prize of cycling.

There also are other jerseys to race for: green for the best sprinter, polka-dot for the best climber, and so on. Teams are not just competing to put their top rider in the yellow jersey, but also to win other jerseys and stages, or maybe get some TV time riding out in front.

In the tour, a good strategy is critical to filling your team’s trophy case. It’s no different in product innovation. It is important that your innovation fits into a broader strategy to succeed in your marketplace.

Do you know your customer, and why they will love your product? Have you considered every touchpoint of your user’s experience? Are your positive customer experiences building loyalty and value into a strong brand? Are you ready to respond when market demand changes? Make sure you’ve outlined a clear strategy so your team and partners can help you realize it.

Savor the setbacks

The history of the Tour de France is punctuated with inspirational comeback stories. It’s not uncommon for racers to be injured in a crash early in the tour, only to get up and win a stage several days later.

The message here isn’t just about overcoming adversity. It’s about expecting it. Innovation is, by definition, uncharted territory. Every breakthrough product faces its fair share of setbacks on the way to success. Every broken prototype, every leaking seal, every electronic glitch, is another coal in the furnace that galvanizes an idea into a high-quality product that users love. Great cyclists don’t win in spite of setbacks; they win because they are fueled by them.

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