Throughout my 14 years at Procter & Gamble, and now as an independent consultant, I have worked in the front end of innovation, where the need to assess new ideas as efficiently as possible is paramount. Drawing from these experiences, I’ve outlined a simple yet highly effective strategy for creating what we in product development call a “Learning Plan” that you can use in your business.
Learning plans, which were first developed as a systematic framework in the field of innovation strategy, help assess a proposition’s viability by focusing on killer issues. By “killer issues,” I mean the few things that would kill the project if they did or did not happen. Or, on the flip side, a learning plan that helps identify the things that absolutely must be true for the project to succeed.
1. Assess project-ending issues and critical assumptions.
To do this, gather the core team—ideally you want input from a diverse set of focus and expertise areas—and spend some time brainstorming all the potential killer issues for your project.
As a team, prioritize the top three to five issues that are most critical for success. These should be stated in the form of assumptions to be proved or disproved. Examples include:
• Target customers have a compelling unmet need that is this product solves.
• There is a way to produce and distribute this product profitably.
• The size of the target market is sufficient to meet the sales goals.
• The technology actually works in a real-world setting.
• Target consumers are willing to pay the proposed price point.
It’s fine to capture a longer list of questions to address in the learning plan, but be sure to identify that limited set of top-priority assumptions that are really make or break, and tackle those first. For example, it doesn’t really matter if your package design is appealing if no one wants to buy the product inside.
2. Determine the methods and measures.
The next important step is to determine what information, or level of proof, is needed to move forward. This will depend greatly on factors such as the level of investment required, the level of risk, and the current stage of development.
Be diligent in identifying the minimum to proceed and also specify how the assumption will be addressed. For example, if you are trying to determine whether a technology actually works in a real-world setting, is it enough to have it perform in “friends & family” testing or will management/investors demand large-scale controlled research results?
The outcome of this approach should be a handful of killer questions with clear methodology and success criteria defined for each. Examples of methods to address the assumptions could include consumer research, team brainstorming, financial modeling, desk research, interviewing an expert or commissioning a consultant. As a final step, add timing, owner(s) and budget required for each question.
This is different from many standard learning plan processes where teams would list every question that needs to be answered, or assumption that needs to be confirmed, and proceed more or less along a timeline that mirrored the stages of product development. In a process like that, teams might be months, or even years, into a project before a red flag about the technology or product costs is uncovered.
By focusing exclusively on the specific killer issues, teams can quickly identify whether a project is viable, and only then, continue on. By identifying the most critical questions and tackling those first, teams can help manage risk and learn quickly. If an issue does truly prove to be “killer” and cannot reasonably be solved, the decision-makers can elect to shelve the project or pivot to a new direction earlier, saving valuable time and resources.