A long-range product pipeline is the key to growth in any industry. When a product manufacturer is armed with a pipeline of products being developed for near-, mid-, and long-term realization, they are better able to navigate trends, respond to competitors, and satisfy retailers and consumers. And most important, they’re poised to take advantage of opportunities quickly when they arise.
Consider your new product pipeline for a moment. This is the series of new products and technologies your business has in the planning and development stages. What do you see? Is it a robust range of innovative products, from mild to wild, in various stages of development? Is the product range informed by a bold strategy to lead your business into the next decade?
Or does your business stick with the not-so-trusty dartboard approach—take whatever new idea seems hot right now, and hurl it toward the wall to see if it hits the target?
Most mid-sized manufacturers are somewhere in-between—you’ve got a few promising irons in the fire, stretching out over the next year or two, but things start to get fuzzy after that. Many of today’s businesses fall off at the tail end of their pipeline. Myopia, induced by the ever-shortening retail cycle, along with shifting budgets and mercurial consumer trends, can leave product development teams without a strategic plan for the future.
How a Product Pipeline Benefits Your Business
Even if your business doesn’t have the budget to develop multiple, concurrent blue-sky prototypes, you still need a plan for product development over the mid- and long-range. There are several big benefits to planning ahead about what to develop:
- With a long-range product pipeline, firms can predict their product portfolio further into the future, making sure they will have enough product introductions to sustain or grow the business.
- Most new product launches are not successful. That’s why firms must continuously generate new ideas to feed the pipeline, so there is always something coming up in development.
- A cohesive, long-term product strategy can give valuable guidance to your product development teams. They’ll better understand the big picture and context within which the product exists. Each product is another step along a strategic path to move your business where it needs to go.
Not surprisingly, many small and mid-sized manufacturers struggle to maintain a robust, long-range pipeline of new product opportunities. It takes time and resources to gather customer insights, translate them into new product concepts, and then develop and test those concepts. Understandably, most in-house design and engineering resources are swamped, focusing on near-term product introductions or maintaining the current product offering. But there is hope, and there is help. Consider these tips and exercises that can help your team flesh out your product pipeline and make sure it’s aligned with your brand message and business goals.
It All Starts with the User
Use various techniques to regularly gather user insights, and share those results with each sector of your business. The foundation of every new product concept should be built on a deep understanding of the user. Research techniques can be fast and inexpensive — like surveying online product reviews for your products, as well as competitors’ – or extensive in scale — (quantitative studies) or depth (qualitative ethnographic research). No single technique will provide a crystal ball into the mind of your customer. Rather, each is a tool providing one piece of the shifting mosaic. That’s why businesses must regularly engage their customers in various ways. Many small and mid-size businesses lack the resources to conduct this kind of research, and rely on partners who specialize in user insight research for product development.
Fill the Hopper
Think of a big hopper at one end of your new product pipeline. Your job is to fill that hopper with lots of concept fragments. Generate ideas in a short period of time using cross-functional brainstorm sessions (fueled by sharing new research on customer insights). Invite creative-minded participants from various sectors of your business to participate in immersive brainstorm sessions with your marketing, product development, and creative engineering teams. Also consider including outside creative professionals who can bring diverse experience from various related industries to stimulate new thinking and help teams get out of creative ruts.
Plan a Long-Range Product Strategy
With the hopper full of idea fragments, it’s time to sort and filter. Maintain a long-range pipeline view as you rate ideas in terms of business opportunity, alignment with brand, and time + cost of development. Great ideas that seem unrealistic in the near- and mid-term, could become critical to your long-term strategy. Remember to ensure that the product range represents a logical extension of your brand and catalog.
Conduct Technology Incubation to Fuel New Product Development
Think of long-range product development as technology incubation—explorations of a range of technologies, including new materials, processes, components, or configurations. Through iterative experimentation, these technologies can eventually become important tools for new product and feature development. As business goals evolve with markets and consumer trends, the path to successful products for these technologies may change, but they will always remain valuable assets as you build your pipeline.