Companies struggle to measure well at the front end of innovation

We think companies can measure better all along the innovation pipeline, but if you asked us what sorts of activities need the most improvement vis-à-vis measurement? It’s not even close: it’s at the front end.

The front end of innovation holds all of the activities companies undertake to figure out what to make for whom. It’s called the front end because it happens before the better defined, more linear part of an innovation process. In images depicting these processes, it’s situated in front of the ubiquitous funnel. It may be festooned with lightbulbs or fairy dust.

There aren’t established options for measuring progress before you have a concept.

Smart people struggle with measurement at the front end for lots of reasons. For one thing, there are fewer well-established options for measuring at the front end. If you look for guidance on innovation measurement, most of what you’ll find evaluates the potential or tracks the progress of a given product or service concept, designed for a target customer. This is decidedly not helpful at the point in the process where you may know neither.

Once you have a product or service concept, you could start using traditional metrics like ROI or NPV. (There are lots of downsides to early use of these, but they’re on the list of possibilities.) You could also use the metrics set forth by your chosen innovation process. The Outcome-Driven Innovation approach, for example, would have you define the jobs to be done and prioritize subsequent concepts in terms of how well they fulfill those jobs. As Phil described here, Lean Startup proponents would model their value and growth hypotheses and run experiments to test them.

But what about all of the work it takes to identify the customer and land on a concept? Looking at the service development process we use at Commodore, below,* none of those approaches offer metrics for the first 5 of the 7 steps:

Front-end goals don’t lend themselves to easy measurement.

Metrics help us assess progress toward stated goals. Is it something about the goals of those activities that makes them resistant to straightforward measurement? If you overlay the intended outcome of each stage…

… you’ll see that the goals in those first steps are shared perspective, a shared basis for judgment. These may seem nebulous, but this is the work of the front end. In later stages, the work is to test, to prove and disprove. Michael Winnick, the founder of dScout, a remote user research platform, says the front end “is about getting people to believe things, And belief is different than proof. Belief is about taking leaps or developing a sense of intuition about what’s next or asking, ‘Why should I do something bold when there are an enormous amount of really valid reasons not to do anything at all?'”  

So the goals at the front end resist straightforward measurement. And learning, the means for reaching those goals, is notoriously hard to measure. It’s even more difficult in the context at hand, when innovating teams need to find, evaluate, assimilate, and apply new knowledge and capabilities.  

With few straightforward options, companies forego measurement or focus on output.

Faced with few agreed-upon options and goals that aren’t easy to measure, companies tend to do one of two things. They forego measurement at this stage altogether, or they focus exclusively on output metrics (e.g., number of ideas generated, number of people who attended a workshop, number of meetings with startups). While those sorts of things are easy to measure, they’re almost certainly not the most important or useful things to measure. Without getting beyond output and into outcome metrics, you won’t know if those activities are advancing your ultimate objectives.

Additionally, an emphasis on output metrics may unintentionally prescribe an approach at exactly the point when teams need to experiment with methods and process.

Good measurement matters, especially at the front end.

So what? Does it matter that companies struggle to measure well at the front end? Based on how often we’ve seen poor measurement practices foil important front-end initiatives, we’d say yes, unequivocally.

Good measurement enables innovation teams and leaders to communicate clearly—about their charge, their methods, their impact. Without such communication, stakeholders often misunderstand or outright dismiss front-end initiatives. Front-end teams are therefore unable to garner the support they need from across the organization. That may mean they don’t get the right staff or feedback for projects, or that they’re unable to transition opportunities to business units.

Good measurement provides the information innovation teams need to make decisions, like which opportunities to pursue and which tools and techniques are most effective. Good practices also ensure that teams and leaders don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on measurement—we’ve seen many innovation managers spend the bulk of their time crafting their next presentation to executive leadership, rather than on the actual work of the front end.

Lastly, poor measurement practices represent an existential threat for both the innovating function and the company. Without the ability to demonstrate progress toward agreed-upon outcomes, innovation teams won’t be able to secure needed funding for these front-end initiatives. The mission of work at the front end—to decide what to make next, for whom—makes its success (and therefore its measurement) vitally important.

If you’re struggling with the challenges described above check out our step-by-step guide to measuring innovation performance at a project level.

* Our process has been adapted in practice, based on context and sequences from The paradox of design research (Johnson), User requirements by any means necessary (Don & Petrick), Bringing clarity to the “fuzzy front end” (Rhea), and The Essential Persona Lifecycle (Adlin).