Driving innovation at a mature company can be a challenge. When your company was founded, its products or technology may have been fresh and disruptive. But when startups and competitors begin to pass you by, it’s time to jumpstart invention.
To get back in the fast lane, try borrowing a strategy from the automotive industry. Automakers showcase their ambitious visions for the future by building concept cars — highly imaginative, one-of-a-kind vehicles that reveal what automakers could do with unlimited resources and time.
You’ll probably never see a concept car out on the road, but their exciting designs and advanced features point toward the future of the auto industry.
If you’re not in the automotive business, building a “concept car” means developing a vision for what your company and your product or service could become if it were unencumbered by time and resource constraints.
Building this out can help your team focus innovation in a particular direction, while still thinking big enough to make a serious impact.
Here’s how to do it:
The ultimate goal of the concept car process is to anticipate customers’ needs, not just react to them. But to do this process right, you still need a deep knowledge of your customers’ everyday pain points as well as their plans for the future.
To see the big picture, look beyond support tickets or customer survey results (although they’re important sources of insight).
For example, hosting live or online events where you can speak with customers directly and informally is a great way to gain insight into their perspectives. You can also ask your sales team what they’re hearing from customer meetings and calls.
Finally, look at popular keyword searches related to your industry, products or services to gain insight into the questions your customers and prospects might have. There’s no shortage of keyword tools that can help, including those offered by Google, SEMrush and Wordstream.
To put customer insights in context, you’ll need up-to-the-minute knowledge of relevant industry news. Focus your research on the topics that are most relevant to your customers and their needs.
For example, even a small change to the algorithms that surface content on Facebook can have an outsized impact on advertisers, publishers or content creators who use that platform. Any company that serves those groups should follow Facebook-related news very closely.
To stay on top of trends and topics that are important to your business, closely monitor social media, subscribe to industry newsletters or set up Google alerts. Armed with the latest news, you’ll be positioned to adapt your product to new policy changes or features as soon as they’re announced.
As you dive deep into customer and industry insights, you may start to identify broader patterns and systemic issues that have no short-term fix.
If you were just looking to build a new feature or patch a small problem, you’d have to set these issues aside — but luckily, that’s not what you’re doing. It’s time to start building your concept car.
The concept car process should involve your senior product managers, designers, developers and user experience experts. Set a timeline for the project — three months may be enough — and meet frequently to brainstorm, design and build your visionary solution. If business hits a slow period, capitalize on downtime to get the process moving.
During the initial sessions, think about what the company would look like today if you had unlimited time and resources. Then extend that vision into the future, taking into account all the ways in which you expect your industry to evolve and change.
Don’t stop with an overarching vision — think about the smaller supporting elements that would be necessary to make it a reality, including supporting technologies, features and capabilities.
Unlike a real concept car, which you’ll likely never see out on the road, your concept car can actually become a reality.
When you’re done with the process, you’ll have a roadmap for the next 5-10 years of growth at your company — and a framework for driving ongoing innovation in the marketplace.
If you don’t have the resources to execute more than 5-10% of your concept car now, that’s fine.
Pay attention in the coming months and years as customer requests come in. If a customer wants a feature that’s part of the plan, prioritize building it. Over time, you can start to assemble more and more of the larger structure you envisioned.
Building a concept car might sound like an odd concept, but it works. When my co-founder and I launched our company, we came up with an ambitious plan for what we’d like the full solution to look like 5-10 years down the road.
We didn’t call it a “concept car” back then, but that was essentially the process we followed. And we’ve been in the fast lane ever since.
It’s harder to innovate when your company is mature and established than when it’s young and nimble. You have to intentionally push an ambitious vision for the entire organization, not just one-off innovation projects or initiatives.
By building a roadmap based on a broader vision of the future, the concept car process ensures your company will continue to grow and change — just like it did in its first 5-10 years.
Kevin Mann is the co-founder and Chief Product Officer at CallRail. He is a serial entrepreneur that gets joy out of growing his business and helping his customers do the same. When he’s not buried in one of his favorite analytics tools, you can find him dining with his friends at one of his favorite restaurants in Midtown Atlanta.
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