Product innovation can certainly be exciting and rewarding. And in today’s hyper-competitive and fast-changing business environment, innovation is not optional. It’s mission critical. Even well-established organizations with large market shares need to make innovation a priority. Not because it is fun, but because it can play a major role in a product’s survival in today’s market.
User demands and preferences change frequently. New competitors appear suddenly. Changing technologies make once-successful products less than optimal or even obsolete.
With threats like these more prevalent today than ever, product innovation is less of an offensive move. Yes, it is a chance to disrupt your industry and take a leadership position in your market, but lately it’s often a matter of playing defense and keeping your products in the game.
This post will help you spot some of the clues that your team might need to prioritize product innovation more than you have in the past. We’ll also offer a few ideas for pivoting your product if the threats you discover are serious enough to warrant that.
If you’re wondering whether your team needs to be innovating more, start with a question. Ask yourself, “Is our product a slow-melting ice cube?” A… what? We’ll explain.
Product Innovation: What Is a Slow-Melting Ice Cube?
Think of a slow-melting ice cube as a product or technology that faces an inevitable demise due to outside factors already in play. These factors won’t kill the product right away, which is why we call such a product a slow-melting ice cube and not a puddle of water. But they’re out there, like a fatal illness that’ll eventually be cited as the product’s cause of death. To put this into more concrete terms, here are a few real-world examples of slow-melting ice cubes:
· Online faxing
· Satellite radio
· Audio CD players
· Digital cameras
Digital Cameras: A Case Study of Failure to Innovate
Let’s take a look at digital cameras. In the early 2000s, these were among the most popular and successful consumer-electronics products in the world. The idea was revolutionary at the time. Virtually anyone could have a high-quality, highly portable camera that would allow them to take hundreds or even thousands of photos at a time. Plus, no more waiting for film to develop.
As it turned out, though, the digital camera was a slow-melting ice cube. In 2008, digital camera makers shipped 120 million units. But guess what else was just starting to disrupt the consumer-electronics market? The iPhone.
The camera industry never expressed much concern about the smartphone revolution, even though most phones had built-in digital cameras. And maybe they didn’t have reason to worry at first: digital camera sales continued increasing for a couple of years, peaking in 2010. But by 2017, the number of cameras shipped had fallen by about 80% from its peak.
The smartphone camera was out there, making inroads into the territory once controlled by the standalone digital camera. But it didn’t wipe out camera sales overnight. That’s why so few people in the industry took enough notice. That’s a classic slow-melting ice cube.
What Creates a Slow-Melting Ice Cube?
If you’re wondering what could turn your product into a slow-melting ice cube, or whether it might already be one, here are a few common causes.
1. The product isn’t built on much intellectual property.
Netflix is a great example of this phenomenon. Their original business model was renting DVDs through the mail.
But Netflix knew from the beginning that this model was a slow-melting ice cube. Today, Netflix runs on a proprietary system that would be near impossible to duplicate and execute on the same level. But at the beginning, the company would simply buy DVDs from studios and use a website and the US Postal Service. Not very innovative, right?
The company’s CEO said early on that Netflix would eventually need to pivot its business, because it would be too easy for a larger competitor to use the same model to compete with Netflix.
If your product isn’t built primarily on intellectual property, or a system you’ve developed that would be difficult and costly to replicate, you might have a slow-melting ice cube.
2. The product fails to address changing user trends or preferences.
Consider satellite radio. It’s an amazing and brilliant technology. Early satellite-radio players used satellite transponders orbiting 22,000 miles away to beam audio to our homes and cars.
But, again, smartphones and other mobile devices were also doing those things.
As innovative as this technology was, it was also a slow-melting ice cube. Radio listeners were increasingly uninterested in having a standalone radio (which the satellite systems required). They were also uninterested in radio programming since they could now listen to their own playlists on iPods and iPhones.
3. The product leverages an aging or outdated technology.
Online faxing has become a popular replacement for the old-fashioned analog fax machine. But the real question is: Given we have email and cloud-based file sharing, why do we still fax at all?
There are several reasons fax has not died yet, as most experts predicted it would long ago. Some laws and regulations still favor fax, mostly because they haven’t been updated to reflect the realities of secure email and file sharing. Also, many large businesses (in healthcare, financial services, and real estate, for example), have invested millions of dollars in their legacy fax infrastructures. They aren’t yet willing to drop all of that investment into the trash. So these businesses often insist that customers and vendors communicate with them via fax.
Online faxing— technology that allows a user to send or receive a fax by email or through a website—has emerged in recent decades. It makes faxing easier for individuals and businesses that don’t want to deal with fax hardware but still need fax capability. In fact, online fax companies market their solution as an easier way to deal with the frustrations of faxing.
The problem is, eventually fax will die and be replaced entirely with more modern forms of document transmission. Which means that even online faxing is a slow-melting ice cube. It survives only because the old-fashioned methods of faxing have proven to be the slowest slow-melting ice cubes in technology history.
So another question your team should ask is, “Is our product’s core technology at risk of being supplanted by something else?”
Product Innovation Strategies for Your Slow-Melting Ice Cube
Now, let’s say your product team takes an in-depth look at your product. You look at your users, your competitors, and the technology trends shaping your industry discover you have a potential slow-melting ice cube on your hands. Here are a few steps you might want to take.
1. Consider Pivoting Your Product
Yes, it sounds scary to pivot, to change your product’s strategic direction. But holding on tightly to your existing product and refusing to change should scare you even more. If your product is a slow-melting ice cube, that strategy will much more likely result in failure.
Besides, many of the world’s most successful companies owe their success to pivoting away from doomed product or business plans before it was too late. Starbucks did it. So did Twitter.
2. Try Disruptive Innovation on Your Own Product
According to the theory of disruptive innovation, larger, incumbent companies’ products can lose ground to newer and smaller competitors when those bigger players shift focus away from the lower end of their market. Meaning: the customers who are less demanding.
While the big company is continuously doing R&D for its most profitable customers and releasing new services just for that market segment, a smaller player can come in and offer a “good enough” solution that captures a big share of the industry that the larger player ignored. Eventually, if the smaller company is successful, its good-enough product becomes more than just good enough—and starts capturing market share from the big player.
If we turn this disruptive innovation theory around, we can see that the incumbent company is managing a slow-melting ice cube. Because that smaller player is out there, figuring out how to build a better product. And they’re starting with a slice of the market the big company doesn’t even care about losing.
The lesson for you? If you think you have a slow-melting ice cube on your hands, maybe you can try to disruptively innovate a competitive product yourself. Build a good-enough product to serve a specific need or desire of that segment of the market you might have been overlooking.
One way to deal with a slow-melting cube is to ensure it’s your own product team that makes the solution that will ultimately replace it.
3. Make Sure Your Product Innovation Solves a Real Problem for Real Customers
One final point: the answer to a slow-melting ice cube is not to innovate just for innovation’s sake. It might sound obvious, but many companies erroneously assume the solution to a fundamental problem is simply to do something different—or “innovative.”
But product innovation is a smart business strategy only if that innovation solves real problems. That means it comes from the difficult work of identifying a real problem or void in the market, developing a proposed solution to that problem, and then validating with users. Customer validation should confirm: 1) your solution does in fact solve their problem, and 2) they would be willing to pay for that solution.
In other words, when it’s time to address your ice cube with product innovation, you and your team first need to go through all of the steps you would with any product. Make sure you’re building a viable solution and not just blindly developing something new.
Innovation: The Answer to a Slow-Melting Ice Cube
In an ideal world, your company’s product would succeed in the market forever. Heck, you wouldn’t even need updates, bug fixes, or a customer support team.
But out here in the real world, even your most well-received and successful product is going to need continuous care and feeding. And eventually, some new technology or change in user behavior is going to make it a slow-melting ice cube.
When that happens, we recommend you try some of the strategies we’ve proposed here: pivot your product to meet the demands of the new landscape, go on the offensive and disruptively innovate your own product (before a competitor comes along and does it first), and follow all of the product-management best practices of validating your new product innovation before you start building it.
What about you? Any suggestions for dealing with a slow-melting ice cube? Please share them in the comments section.