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Revving Up Your Innovation and New Product Development Engine With After Action Reviews

It’s the start of a new year and time for us to rev up our innovation and new product development (NPD) engines. To get your NPD engine running at maximum revs, it is a good idea to take the time to do an After Action Review (AAR) on key elements of your NPD processes and intended outcomes. For each major outcome, you and your team should ask:

  1. What was planned?

  2. What actually occurred? (facts not judgments)

  3. What went well and why?        

  4. What can be improved and how?

An After Action Review (AAR) begins with a clear comparison of intended vs. actual results achieved. For example, how many new products were planned to launch in 2012 and how many actually did launch?  Of the products launched in the last 3 years, how many are achieving forecast goals?

The AAR is a simple process to capture the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. It is an opportunity for your executive and NPD teams to reflect on overall business performance at the portfolio and project levels. Suggested elements of your NPD system to examine are:

Direction: Are you still going in the right direction? Or does your direction need a change in heading?

Direction is all about setting the overall context in which the detail work is to be done so as to benefit the overall business. It’s about choosing where you will compete and how you will win the customers’ business. Without clear direction, your company will be rudderless and will waste a lot of resources getting nowhere fast.

At the corporate level, direction defines the business your company intends to compete for and the market it elects to serve. Also known as corporate strategy. At the project level it’s making sure everyone understands  the purpose and goals of the development projects (i.e. clear understanding of the customer value proposition – i.e. what jobs customers are trying to get done better) and the NPD plan to transform the initial product concept into a market success.

What’s in your product development portfolio?

A good way to assess your overall direction and execution effectiveness is to do an after action review on your product and project portfolio system. The portfolio system provides a clear indication of the present state of your firm and where it is headed. You should have at least 2 if not three portfolio’s in your review:

1) Your current product offerings. These are the products and services you are currently offering to customers. It’s good to look at your current offering at least once a quarter and evaluate the performance of each product on your line card.

Are you making money or are you just barely breaking even? If you are not making sufficient margin on a product offering – it’s either time to re-invent the line or sun set it. Get rid of the losers in your current product portfolio and concentrate on selling and extending the winners.

2) Your new product development project pipeline: These are the current projects in your product development hopper. It defines your near and mid-term product launches. And should be a reflection of the overall corporate strategy.

How well aligned are the projects with your overall strategy? Are there some projects in the pipeline that no longer support your strategic direction? Are there other projects not being resourced that should be?

The new product development portfolio should strike the right balance between “bread-and-butter” opportunities (this would be product extensions and incremental improvements) and breakthrough innovations  (including new-to-market and new-to-company).  By allocating buckets of development resources between sure bets and higher risk innovation, your company can improve its long-term growth without the risk of “betting the ranch” or succumbing to flat and declining sales due to “me-too” product doldrums.

The NPD portfolio is also the primary tool to prioritize and allocate development resources effectively and efficiently. Chances are there are more opportunities listed in your NPD portfolio than there are resources available. Do less to achieve more seems counterintuitive, but in actuality, more gets done by a focused “unity of effort.”

3) Technology capabilities portfolio: These are technologies and learning programs to develop new capabilities based on gaps in long term horizon projects in your product development portfolio. Ideally these are capabilities that will provide your company breakthrough new products and sustainable innovation.

Allocating time for your NPD staff to learn and develop new skills will not only provide future competitive advantage for you, but will also energize and motivate your team to create “insanely great” products.

Did your idea-to-launch framework identifying important jobs-to-be-done customers want done better? 

How well have your recent product development launches addressed the customers’ desires to get their jobs done?  Are you capturing the customers jobs-to-be-done requirements and desired outcomes effectively and early in your idea-to-launch framework? What can you do to improve your knowledge of what customers want early on in the development process?

Is your company a great place to work?

At the end of the day, it’s your people you lead that create value for your customers and shareholders. Nothing happens without their efforts. From top to bottom in the organization, people want to be part of something great, and want to do their part in contributing to your company’s success.

Are you providing them clear leadership? Does your environment encourage team work and collaboration both inside and outside the organization. How open to new ideas and experimentation is the environment?

Make everyone on the team a “cathedral builder” not just “brick layers” — see “Is your NPD Team Cathedral Builders or Bricklayers?”

After Action Reviews will help you understand what’s working, what’s not working, and what can be improved and how in creating a NPD engine that produces consistent results.

Here’s to revving up that innovation and product development engine and winning the marketing races you chose to compete in.


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