No doubt you’ve heard the term “fuzzy front end” of innovation at some point over the course of the past few years. It’s that unstructured, undisciplined and fuzzy “ideation” period where solutions to business problems and potential new product or service opportunities are identified, mashed together and prototyped. More specifically, it is a collection of processes and business activities where the organization formulates conceptual ideas and, through a number of different analysis methodologies, decides whether or not to invest resources in further development.
The fuzzy front end’s lesser-known, blue collar, back-office cousin is known as the “messy back end” of innovation. This term isn’t as prevalent because it is in this stage of an idea’s life cycle where the fun of inspiration and creativity meets the rigor of execution and managed implementation. In short, its where the best of the ideas generated during the front end are turned into revenue and margin through the messy back end of execution processes and speed to market discipline. The work isn’t nearly as glamorous as brainstorming or off-site idea retreats or “what if…” workshops where they hand out squishy balls, Lego™ sets or have everyone write with a Crayon™. But without it, there would be no “innovation” at all!
Let’s take a quick step back and re-orient ourselves to the accepted definition of innovation…”The development and application of a new idea, device or process that meets new requirements, unarticulated needs or existing market demand.” First, the idea or concept must be new. Don’t forget that “new” can really mean a never before used combination of two existing concepts! Stopping only with this simple requirement for innovation, however, produces an invention, not innovation. Second, the new idea or concept must address an actual market need. An invention that no one needs or want is a novelty, again…not innovation. Innovations solve problems that people need or want solved. Finally, a new idea or concept that addresses an actual market need must also be developed (produced), applied (released) and prove that the need was met (market acceptance). That is the real definition of innovation!
Another important distinction to remember is that both the fuzzy front end and the messy back end of innovation are only a part of a much larger innovation and product development life cycle.
It’s in the messy back end of innovation where the entire innovation process comes to life and begins to take shape. In essence, it delivers upon the strategic execution approach of the organization. Starting with the leadership’s strategic vision for the company, an organizational structure is developed to effectively and efficiently produce products and services. This structure requires management-level oversight and supporting processes that can come from any number of different methodologies or a customized, hybrid-based model:
- Project Portfolio Methodologies (PMI, Prince2, Critical Chain, etc.)
- Product Development Methodologies (PDMA, NPD, PDM/PLM, etc.)
- Lean Manufacturing and Process Improvement Methodologies (SixSigma, Lean, PDCA, Kanban, etc.)
- Traditional and Agile Software Development Life Cycle Methodologies (Agile, SCRUM, XP, CoDev, etc.)
Finally, commercialization, marketing, product/service launch, support and continuous improvement processes come into play and serve as feedback loops to start the entire innovation life cycle process all over again!
As you can see from the model, we place a significant amount of emphasis on both portfolio management and execution-focused activities. It is at the portfolio layer where the strategic intent of the organization is joined and aligned with the concept development work being conducted at the “fuzzy front end.” And it is at the execution layer where tactical planning, design and implementation activities bring the idea to life. The natural interactions that occur between portfolio management activities and execution (project) management activities run iteratively until all intended features and functionality of the product and/or service are ready for delivery.
If you are interested in learning more about fuzzy front end and messy back end of innovation concepts, there are two great conference events available, produced by IIR, that provide presentations on new thinking regarding these disciplines, case studies put on by organizations working to implement these concepts, and exhibitors anxious to demonstrate their technical tools designed to support the innovation management process:
For those of you who are project and portfolio management practitioners, know that you are already regular participants in the messy back end of innovation. You play a integral part in helping take something that was once only an idea in someone’s head, and leading it through a process that transforms it into a tangible, meaningful, needed and hopefully profitable product, concept and/or service. You are a crucial piece of the strategic execution puzzle!