Lessons from the Accelerator: Thriving in the Fuzzy Front End

Innovation is a chaotic process.

Bridging the gap between an imaginative idea and a real product is a challenge. Many innovative and highly disruptive ideas are lost in this gap that is often called the fuzzy front end phase of product development. Learning to embrace the creative chaos is key to successfully developing new products.

What exactly happens in the fuzzy front end?

The term fuzzy front end was first coined in 1985 by Don Reinertsen, a McKinsey & Co. consultant who has been a thought leader in the field of product development for decades. His concept is now recognized as the new first step in product development.

According to Jonah Frishammar and Henrick Floren, both professors from universities in Sweden, the fuzzy front end is defined as “the period between when an opportunity for a new product is first considered, and when the product idea is judged ready to enter ‘formal’ development.” It’s the early-stage innovation process in the development of a new product or service.

The phase is called “fuzzy” because of the lack of predictability and structure that comes with developing new products. Go astray in this phase and an entire product could fail. but if you embrace the risks and uncertainty it can lead to big breakthroughs.

Embracing uncertainty is key to developing a new product.

Is there any structure in such a messy process? Yes, but it’s not the kind of structure found in most large companies. Corporate structure creates systems that provide more certainty of the same results, but in early stage product development, we don’t aim for more of the same. That’s not innovation.

According to Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture Inc., a potential product goes through seven phases:

  • Collect customer insights
  • Develop strategic foresights
  • Make sense and map opportunities
  • Ideate and develop concepts
  • Prototype concepts rapidly
  • Co-create with customers
  • Assess brand and market

The above steps help a company decide if time and resources should be spent creating a new product. This means that many products do not make it out of the earliest part of product development alive, and that’s a good thing. Killing bad ideas early preserves precious resources and ensures that you don’t spend time and energy following lost leads.

Implementing enough structure to keep tasks on track and creativity bubbling is essential for success, but too much structure can impede creativity. 

Startups provide an insider look at this messy process.

At the SparkLabKC accelerator program, we see the value of the fuzzy front end every day, as we help our companies grow. Startups can seem like they’re in a perpetual state of fuzziness since they are actively developing new ideas into products and services. One of our jobs as mentors is to make sure the companies go through these phases and emerge on the other side with something customers will buy.

The accelerator process is designed to give startups the opportunity to work through the messy process of starting. We remove the idea killing structures and bureaucracies associated with corporate structures to allow healthy ideation to flourish. We embrace the chaos and provide the minimal structure needed to help small businesses do what many large corporations are scared to do: take risks.

Getting lost in the creative process will help you find an innovative path. 

If you’re not getting messy with this phase then you’re not doing it right. Allowing yourself and your teammates to get a little lost in the creative process can lead to big ideas that make great products. At Eidson & Partners, we embrace the chaos to help our clients decide what to do with new products. We believe this is the first step to better products and true innovation.

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