How to break through the Fuzzy Front End

by Duncan

New product development is tough. That's an understatement. You've got market research to do, testing, manufacturing, the marketing launch to worry about. But before all that, you have got to break through the Fuzzy Front End of product development and innovation. Let's take a step back though....

What is the "Fuzzy Front End"?
The Fuzzy Front End is the 'end' or timezone where an idea is either approved for development or is terminated. Khurana and Rosenthal (1998) defined the fuzzy front end as "to include product strategy formulation and communication, opportunity identification and assessment, idea generation, product definition, project planning, and executive reviews" and paired their definition with the diagram below:

fuzzy front end

Managing the "Fuzzy Front End" of Innovation

What makes the Fuzzy Front End so... ’fuzzy’?
In the The PDMA Glossary for New Product Development the fuzzy front end is described as consisting of 3 tasks – 1) strategic planning; 2) concept generation; and 3) pre-technical evaluation. These tasks are largely unstructured, and can often be chaotic and unpredictable, in contrast to the stage that follows (formal product development) which as you know, is much more structured. This is where the ‘fuzzy’ tag comes from – this chaos and lack of structure.

Fuzzy Front End activities/stages
Much like the fuzzy front end itself, there is a lack of certainty and consensus regarding the activities and stages that make up this stage of the product development process.

Koen et al’s New Concept Development model goes some way to resolving this. The model was created in 2001 in order to “provide a common language and insights on the front end activities”. The model’s 5 front-end elements are 1) Opportunity Identification; 2) Opportunity Analysis; 3) Idea Genesis - Vetter can help you there; and 4) Idea Selection; and 5) Concept and Technology Development.

Fuzzy Front End - New Concept Development Model

Tips for breaking through

  • Blitz through the Idea Genesis stage by using an online system to gather ideas. In our very biased view, Vetter’s online suggestion box is best for this, and you can setup a free trial in about 2 minutes to see if we’re telling the truth.
  • Involve customers and suppliers in the innovation process. Take a leaf out of the lean startup movement's book and involve the potential customers (and suppliers) in the process of product development.
  • Let things get a little messy, a little fuzzyIn the Startup World, they say that if you feel like you are ready to launch, you've launched too late. I'd adopt this reasoning for the fuzzy front end and argue that if things aren't a little messy, a little fuzzy, then you're not doing it right. Allow managers, researchers, staff members to get a little lost in the process, encourage them to be entrepreneurial and take some risks.

    Fuzzy Front End links for further reading

    Acieveing success in the fuzzy front end phase of innovation


    Product development: Past research, present findings and future directions

    Maximizing Productivity in Product Innovation

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