Keeping innovation alive in down economy

October 25, 2009
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Bud Klipa, president of Details, an office tools solutions company owned by Steelcase, has been in the business for 30 years. So this isn’t the first industry downturn he’s lived through.

Despite the down economy, Details is working on development of multiple new products. The key to survival, Klipa says, is to remember that you are designing products for the future economy.

“It’s been a pretty good challenge for us. It’s no secret. You’ve seen the things in the news in terms of budgets being tight and headcounts being reduced. You’re having to deal with fewer resources and shifting resources. From that standpoint, it makes the job of doing new product development even more difficult than it usually is, because it is a bit of a mystery of how all that stuff happens,” said Klipa. “I’ve seen different processes come and go, but fundamentally, we’re still keeping to the same process discipline.”

Klipa said that process involves paying attention to the marketplace to spot opportunities both now and in the future.

“You have to have different time horizons. The market won’t always look like it does right now and I think that’s part of the message: You’re not developing products for right now in the marketplace. You’re developing products for 12 months, 18 months, two years — and looking out beyond all that,” he said.

“The challenge is how you keep people motivated, how you keep projects going, making sure you have the right opportunities identified and resources pointed at those things, even though you’ve got a lot of dark clouds in today’s business.

“It’s the age old ‘today’s business versus tomorrow’s business’ — and product development is tomorrow’s business.”

The process Details uses to make sure it has identified the right opportunities is a bit like taking a gaseous substance and turning it into a solid, said Klipa. It all starts with vague ideas.

“We, in broad strokes, follow a fairly straightforward process. It starts with what we call ‘exploration.’ This will be vague ideas or themes that indicate a hypothesis,” he said. “When you do a design brief for an explanation, you have belief statements — ‘Here’s what we believe.’ The real question is, do those beliefs hold up as you make your way through the process?”

Klipa gave an example of an upcoming product called Eyesite, a computer monitor system that supports dual screens with adjustable positions. Details studied research by Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and the University of Utah that stated using dual monitors increases productivity. And it noticed that sales were creeping up for its dual-screen support systems.

“Your antennas are up. You’ve seen this research come out; you’ve seen increased sales of our dual monitors. Maybe we need to go out and do some exploration on what’s going on in that, and how do we learn more about that trend that’s developing,” he said.

Part of that exploration is to go out and learn how people use dual screen systems. Details conducts “user-observations” with key customers, non-customers and “extreme users.”

Klipa said an extreme user might include video gamers or “really hardcore graphic artists, not really the mainstream of who we tend to supply. But by doing that you’re learning about what are some of the real benefits and what are the nuances of using those things,” said Klipa. “Then you can take those things and drive them back into, ‘What does that mean to our core business and core users?’”

At the end of the exploration process, teams put together a presentation of what they have found and a decision is made on whether the project will be put on the shelf or go into a formal development cycle.

“Largely speaking, you’re into this gaseous state; it’s like fog,” he said. “Then it starts to get a little bit clearer and it starts to gel into something as you start to get into the development process. Then finally you end up with something concrete at the end of it. It’s really being able to make your way through all those stages … and having people that are comfortable at each one of those stages.

“There are certain times when you’re in the middle of these three-month explorations and you’re going, ‘Are we getting anywhere?’ You’ve got to somewhat suspend your disbelief — keep things going, keep people motivated. That upfront part is a pretty interesting stage, but it’s an important one when you’re talking about innovation.”

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