A work related aside

Olivier Blanchard has an editorial post at Corante, quoting Mary Schmidt’s review of the new Kraft Cheese grating concept—a bag containing a wedge of parmesan cheese and a miniature grater. He notes that Kraft can spend bundles on market research but still end up throwing darts in a dark room when it comes to innovation and wonders whether there is a target market that really needs this sort of thing.

I suspect that there isn’t, and I suspect that this was obvious to many of the people that worked on the project. Projects like these occur when (1) companies define themselves as innovative (2) a language of innovation is established and (3) department leaders are able to use this language to gain political capital within the company.

I don’t have any knowledge of Kraft’s innovation process, but the product is perfect for gaining internal alignment within a consumer packaged goods company struggling against a market that seems to demand an endless stream of new products. The product is easy to visualize and understand. The product is low cost, save for R&D involved in the cheese grater. The product saves Kraft several processing steps in powdering the cheese and making sure that the cheese powder does not stick together. Importantly, this is the sort of product that can attract participation across the company. While seeming simple, it is new enough that someone in R&D can become a team player and leap onboard, it is a sure win for someone who might otherwise be struggling in marketing. It supports a series of timelines that can be met and is situated in a familiar market where forecasts are easy to make with numbers that are large enough to attract c-level support.

All that this innovation requires now is leadership, a sponsor, someone who believes in the concept. If the concept is generated at an innovation workshop, the innovator may be placed high enough in the company hierarchy that the benefits of forming a special team become obvious. If the innovation occurs in the context of a divisional or company wide ‘incubator’ program then all the better. If innovation occurs in the context of an initiative that requires “y new product launches” by 2007 then the inventor is making a valuable contribution to an internal metric.

Once the concept has surfaced and a team has formed, there is no backing down short of a market launch. If the product fails in the market, then the team has attempted innovation and failed, learning a great deal in the process. This the product fails internally prior to launch then the team leadership has probably spent a great deal of political capital to no avail. That’s the curious thing about innovation processes: in-market failure can be acceptable, particularly if those failures generate new consumer insight, but internal failure prior to launch is often taken to demonstrate a lack of leadership.

Photo from the Accidental Hedonist website:

grate

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