When enterprise technology companies fail to innovate it’s usually not a shortage of new product concepts that’s to blame.

Follow-on product concepts are typically plentiful and originate in places high and low, from the CEO down to a CSR.

Rather, it’s market validation that first gums things up.

Once a concept has been validated in market, it can be prioritized relative to other concepts, and a business case can be made to invest in its development and marketing.

Product Management is the obvious choice for validating new product concepts to break this logjam. But how, and when? Most PMs’ days are consumed with delivering existing products.

I share below six tips for how your organization can better validate and prioritize new technology product concepts.

The goal of this process, as it is with startups, is to rapidly launch a minimum viable product (MVP). In practice, this means scoping a product which sufficiently addresses the essential nub of the target customers’ problem such that they will buy it, and a strong business can begin being built.

What doesn’t get calendared, doesn’t get done

Schedule one day each month to make continuous progress towards an annual sprint (up to two weeks) of focused, high intensity customer interviews, prototyping, and analysis. Without this sort of conscious forcing mechanism, I’ve found the day-to-day urgencies of delivery will easily eclipse new product validation.

Write it down

Meet with each originator of a new product concept to gather the essentials of who, what, and why. That is, define who the target customer is (more on that below); what problems does she have with the current way of doing things; and why is the proposed new solution better. Consider posting this info on your intranet or Confluence to see if others inside the company have had related experiences or target customer contacts you can interview.

Don’t just do it

Validate the who, what, and why of your concepts with target customers before you’ve made the mental, financial, and time commitment of comps or prototypes. In the time you’d spend building a prototype, you’ll be able to test multiple concepts and prioritize across the portfolio of ideas. Even if you have just one concept, postponing the commitment of a prototype should make you and the entire organization more agile, or responsive, to market feedback.

Choose wisely

Salience is I think the most important filter for choosing who you interview. You’ll of course define your target customer with demographic data such as role, responsibilities, and company (size, vertical, geography, etc). But make sure you talk with people who now have or recently had the problems your product solves so the input you get is based on experience rather than hypotheticals. I find a useful way to frame this question is the competitive set for your product. Find people who’ve recently evaluated, bought, or used these alternatives, which may include homegrown or DIY approaches in addition to commercial products. You should also screen for bias, to eliminate friends and friendly customers (ie Customer Advisory Board members) and foes like your competitor’s employees.

Improve iteratively

Progress from customer and problem fluency to defining and then refining your MVP and business case with an iterative test and refine process. As your confidence rises that your solution addresses a high priority problem for your target customer, develop and test a prototype. I group interviews in one week sprints, and end each week using the key themes of those interviews to adjust documents and topics for the following week’s discussions.

A strong signal

Since it’s probably too early to ask target customers for money, consider using time as a proxy. Ask target customers to participate in the product’s Customer Advisory Board. Explain that participation entails usability testing advanced prototypes, beta testing, joining in the product’s launch as a live referenceable customer, etc. You may want to bring a one page overview with a signature line. You’ll know you’re on the right track if your MVP evokes sufficient excitement that customers are willing to invest the time to ensure it solves their problem.


NB: There’s of course much more to product innovation than I’ve covered in these six tips. Experience is the best teacher, as Benjamin Franklin said, and so my hope is that you find inspiration enough to set aside time in your calendar for validation and make something of the new product concepts rattling around your office.

Do you have your own tips? Tell me what’s worked for you with a comment below.