New product failures - the problem with inventors

There is a paradox about new products. On the one hand we desperately need them. It is said that 30% of our revenue should be made up of new products. And on the other hand it is also said that 95% of new products fail. Innovation therefore is critical to our businesses and yet we clearly aren’t good at it.

Innovation is in itself a paradox. What is innovation? Is it a product that has been tweaked, a formula that has been modified or something that has been put in a new package? Most of us think of innovation as something completely new. It is this completely new aspect of innovation that really matters. We can all change the colour of a package and call it new but not many us can think of and launch something that is decidedly different.

Thinking of inventions that are revolutionary and different, Sir Clive Sinclair comes to mind. Sadly he was lost to the world the other week at the respectably old age of 81 years. He came up with a host of inventions but will be remembered mainly for his ZX Spectrum computer and the C5 electric tricycle. These were unorthodox inventions and they came from an unorthodox person. Melissa Schilling, a Professor at New York University’s Stern School Of Business is the author of a book called Quirky. It is about eight innovators and included Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk. Like Sinclair she found them to be manic eccentrics, even misfits of a kind, but they were all driven by a sense of purpose and hard work. People who live with them would no doubt call them obsessive.

These are names of inventors we know because their products have been launched and made a difference to our lives. However, it is a frightening thought that according to Clayton Christensen (he who introduced us to “innovative disruption”) 80% of new products fail. Some people think this figure of failure is too low and it is nearer 90%. The reason for this high failure rate? It is usually because the innovation is the brainchild of the inventor and not necessarily something that is valued by the market place. As Clayton Christensen would say, a product has to have a job to do if it is to be successful. And by "jobs to be done" he means it must do something useful and have wide appeal. It must also fulfil a number of other basic requirements such as reliability (not one of Clive Sinclair's main traits) and be priced competitively.

Unfortunately many new products are deluded fantasies of the inventor. Sometimes these can be ahead of their time and it is why the obsessive inventor may win through eventually. Hammering away at the market to persuade people to try the new product may not be easy if the early critics give it a thumbs down (and there are always plenty of those around).

New product development needs the inspiration and dedication of weird and wonderful geniuses. It also needs rigour and structure if it is to succeed. This is why the stage gate process is so important. Read up on the stage gate process for new products on: