Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Providing Clarity, and a Common Language to the "Fuzzy Front End"

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Providing Clarity, and a Common Language to the "Fuzzy Front End"

Article excerpt

Eight companies collectively determined a theoretical construct for the Fuzzy Front End of innovation in order to provide a common framework and language; they found that highly innovative companies have a more proficient FFE.

OVERVIEW: Eight companies that were Process Effectiveness Network members of the Industrial Research Institute attempted to collectively determine the best practices of the Fuzzy Front End (FFE) of innovation. Comparing one company 's processes to those of another proved insurmountable because there was neither a common language nor clear and consistent definition of the key elements of the front end. As a result, the group developed a theoretical construct, defined as the New Concept Development (NCD) model, in order to provide a common language and insights on the front end activities. The model consists of three key parts: five front end elements, the engine that powers the elements, and external influencing factors. Proficiency of the FFE was evaluated at 19 companies by using the NCD model. Highly innovative companies were found to be more proficient in the FFE and in several elements of the NCD model.

The front end of innovation, or what is often called the Fuzzy Front End (FFE), presents one of the greatest opportunities for improving the overall innovation process. This stage, which we define by those activities that take place prior to the formal, well-structured New Product and Process Development (1) or "Stage Gate[TM]" process (2), is the target of increasing attention because of the widely-perceived lack of high-profit ideas entering the New Product and Process Development (NPPD) process. Moreover, considerable literature exists on best practices for the start of the NPPD process (3) as well as within it (4-6).

In contrast, there has been little research to date on best practices for the front end. Furthermore, many of the practices carried out during the NPPD don't apply to the front end because, as indicated in Table 1, the nature of the work, commercialization date, funding level, revenue expectations and other factors are fundamentally different (see "What is the Front End?," page 49).

It was for these reasons that an Industrial Research Institute (IRI) project team from eight companies (Air Products, Akzo Nobel, BOC, DuPont, Exxon, Henkel, Mobil and Uniroyal Chemical) began studying the front end, with the optimistic objective to develop a list of best practices for the FFE. The team members, all "owners" of the product development process within their firms, found it impossible to determine the best practices at each company. Comparing one company's front-end processes to those of another proved insurmountable because there was no common language or definition of the key elements of the front end. To address this shortcoming, a theoretical construct--defined as the New Concept Development (NCD) model--was developed to provide insight and a common language.

For the remainder of the article, we use the term "Front End of Innovation" (FEI) as opposed to Fuzzy Front End (FFE). We strongly believe that FFE implies that this portion of the innovation process is mysterious, and this attitude often results in a lack of accountability and difficulty in determining who is responsible to manage the activities in this area. The use of the term FFE incorrectly suggests that unknowable and uncontrollable factors dominate the front end, implying that this initial part of the innovation process can never be managed.

New Concept Development Model

The NCD model, shown in Figure 1, consists of three key parts:

1. The inner area defines the five key elements comprising the Front End of Innovation (FEI).

2. The Engine or "bull's eye" portion which drives the five front-end elements and is fueled by the leadership and culture of the organization.

3. The Influencing Factors, or environment on the periphery, consists of Organizational Capabilities, Business Strategy, the Outside World (i. …

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