Ultimate guide to product co-creation

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by Steve Denning

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A number of today’s organizations are implementing open innovation challenges for strategic purposes. In the case of companies like Ford and Bosch, there isn’t any specific product they want to produce.

Rather, they want to build a network of innovators and ideas for specific technologies they’ve identified as critical to their future success. In these cases, the goal is to establish the foundation for even more open innovation in the future. These instances of open innovation are just as valid, because success is clearly defined and information purposefully shared.

But what if your need for open innovation is tied to a specific product? Perhaps you’re more interested in improving an existing product or developing a new one entirely. That’s an overwhelming task, particularly because its specificity equals pressure and stakeholders expect tangible results.

Read Next: 7 tips for managing an open innovation challenge

The good news is that it’s entirely possible to manage open innovation particularly to achieve new product development or improvement. And it can be done in a structured, phased approach that allows organizers to effectively manage the product development or improvement.

This approach is known as co-creation. Co-creation is an ongoing, collaborative process between a company and external audiences, which can include customers, partners, startups, or employees whose day-to-day work is not in innovation. It’s a strategy that can be used as part of an open innovation project.

Generally speaking, co-creation follows five main phases. These phases make up Chaordix’s proprietary methodology and workflow for innovation and creativity, and it’s influenced by the latest research as well as other proven methodologies including design thinking and creative problem solving.

These phases differ slightly depending on whether you wish to co-create for new product development or product improvement.

The 5 Phases to Co-creation

Phase 1: Clarification 

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Imagine being asked for your input on a nursery’s design when you have zero interior design experience and no children. Your response to most questions would likely be, “Yeah, that looks fine.”

Now imagine your sister announced she’s pregnant and wants your input. Suddenly, you’ve got some ideas.

Perhaps she should pick this colour because it has a cheery vibe and you want your niece or nephew to sleep in a happy room.

You might have some input on the crib or the books that would go on the shelf even though the baby won’t be able to read for a while.

You may even spend more time than you otherwise would arguing about the merits of a rocking chair.

This sudden shift in interest is triggered by an emotional connection to the problem. You can emulate this during your new product development or product improvement co-creation efforts through the clarification stage where you encourage participants to build empathy in order to appreciate the task at hand.

For new product development

  • Ask participants to read an article or watch a video about a similar business in a similar industry and present their opinions or critiques
  • Ask participants to rank product features based on their personal understanding in order to identify what they prioritize and where knowledge gaps exist (Quizzes, creative writing exercises, and choose and rank exercises are also useful here.)

Check Out: [Infographic] Collaborating with brand fans - the impact of customer co-creation on innovation and brand engagement

For product improvement

  • Ask participants to design the setting for a great product experience through storytelling
  • Encourage participants to share the feelings of satisfaction or frustration with specific products to help them bring untapped or unspoken needs to the forefront

Phase 2: Create

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The previous clarification stage allows participants to think about the problem at hand. It’s at this next stage that the Innovation Challenge or Creative Contest is introduced with the distribution of a challenge brief that includes full details and background information about the problem to be solved or the product to be improved.

Related Read: 5 open innovation mistakes to avoid

Once this happens, a shift takes place where organizers guide participants towards assembling these insights into substantive ideas.

For new product development

  • Ask contestants to represent their ideas through imagery. This can happen through a: Pre-selected image collage, photo picker tool, or participant Photos (i.e. asking participants to share photos that represent the experience or product they’d like to create)
  • Create a structured problem-solving activity in which there are specific rules and requirements in place, as well as some sort of incentive, for the best prototype

This rules and requirements stage is particularly important because it marks the beginning of outflows of knowledge from the organization. Without this knowledge sharing, participants won’t be able to effectively harness the “blue sky thinking” they used to build empathy.

For product improvement

  • Ask participants to provide a detailed description of what their desired product experience would look like along with comparisons of undesirable versions of that hypothetical product experience
  • Direct participants to come up with solutions for their ideal product experience (i.e. through applying techniques or solutions from other tools that they use)
  • Provide constraints and guidelines that participants must adhere to as well as some sort of incentive or prize

Phase 3: Iterate

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While we differentiate between new product development and product improvement in this article, “improvement” happens in both projects. At this point in the project, participants think deeply about the benefits and drawbacks of their ideas and work through improving those limitations in a structured way.

For new product development

  • Offer feedback from the brand or other members of the co-creation project to each participant
  • Encourage members to explain unclear features of their product, consider alternative options, and push their ideas just a little bit further
  • Guide participants to make their products either more feasible (through company information like specs, project management templates, guidelines, technology capabilities), or more creative (through discussions about the brand)
  • Invite participants to offer feedback and ask questions about their co-participants’ products
  • Choose a winner through a vote. Some suggestions for how to do this include: Recruiting experts to choose a final winner or recruiting experts to choose a number of finalists that the community ultimately chooses a winner from

Of course, the process isn’t limited to formal votes. An open innovation community can start the process of narrowing down the best ideas by supporting their favourite ideas by leaving feedback and comments throughout the process.

For moderators, it’s quickly clear which ideas have the most support making it easier for the expert panel to review. Moreover, top idea creators can incorporate the community’s feedback into their product, which means the expert panel is presented with ideas that are even further refined.

If You Like This, Read This: The LEGO Ideas story - How brands can take a page out of LEGO's co-creation and innovation playbook

There should be a pre-prepared scorecard for this portion of the campaign, so it’s clear how these products are being evaluated.

For product improvement

This stage is exactly the same as the process for new product development. The goal is to get participants to ask questions, push their ideas, and improve their solutions so that your team (or the community at large) can eventually vote to choose a winner.

Phase 4: Implementation

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There it is. The new (or improved) product that came out of your co-creation and open innovation efforts.

This isn’t where the work ends, we’re afraid.

Remember what we said about potential vs. execution? You’ve developed a product that has the potential to perform wonderfully, but now it’s about making sure it actually performs.

For new product development

  • Ask participants to identify and rank the most important features of this product in order to determine product positioning (i.e. the must haves, the features that would compel them to actually spend money on this vs. put it back on the shelf)
  • Interview participants on potential marketing channels, audiences, and messages so a go-to-market strategy begins to crystallize

For product improvement

  • Discuss how to give the project momentum by coming up with potential brand ambassador ideas, appropriate brands or bloggers to partner with, and more

Phase 5: Reflection

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Once a product’s developed and it’s time to put it on the market, it’s tempting to kick up your feet until the next open innovation program. But if you want your next open innovation project to be even more successful than this one, you’ll need to do a bit of reflection, especially while your participants are still engaged.

New product development

Survey your participants to determine:

  • What they liked most about the overall experience
  • What you did particularly well and what they would have liked to see done differently

For product improvement

The reflection stage for this stage is similar to the reflection stage for new product development.

If this project were limited to a crowdsourcing campaign or social media interactions, many of these phases would not take place. Accomplishing open innovation through co-creation, whether it’s for new product development or product improvement, is about facilitating a structured collaboration and systematic approach to creativity with participants.

With the right planning, strategy and tools, you'll not only crowdsource better ideas, but will also effectively implement solutions in direct collaboration with your community. 

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