Watch any cooking show on TV and you'll quickly learn that the first rule of any professional kitchen is, “taste as you go.” No good chef waits until the dish is done to test the food. Instead, the best chefs sample throughout, soliciting input from their sous (second in command) chefs on the line and tweaking the ingredients based on that feedback.
In corporate parlance, the “taste as you go” approach is called piloting. Piloting is a great strategy for companies of all sizes -- from the smallest entrepreneurial ventures to Fortune 100 organizations. It helps companies get new products and services into the market faster, without being subjected to the formalized, time-consuming and sometimes plodding market test processes most organizations currently employ.
Piloting offers a realistic preview experience for users at the earliest stages of development. It allows the organization and design team to gather real-time insights that can be used to shape and refine the product and prepare it for commercialization. If formal market testing is a black tie affair, piloting is more “come as you are.”
For companies that know they must continuously and speedily evolve to stay relevant to their customers and ahead of their competition, piloting offers a number of benefits:
1. You can refine while there's still time.
When traditional marketing testing begins, your product, in most cases, is fully baked. The features have been established, the form factor finalized and the designers have since moved onto something else. At that stage, the goal is not so much to continue refining the product but to determine the best marketing strategies and use of budget.
With pilots, however, reaction and feedback are solicited and collected in development, while there’s still time to make changes, call an audible and make critical enhancements that will increase the product's chances of commercial and revenue success. The feedback companies receive at this stage is invaluable and could never be gleaned from a market study or in a lab.
2. You can spur the next big idea.
Not only can piloting feedback inform tweaks to the existing design of the product in question, but the feedback from users and real world applications of said product can even spur an idea for something entirely new and different, or a related and ancillary service.
With new products and services come additional opportunities for revenue. So, in this way, piloting drives ideation and leaves the company’s pipeline full of fresh and exciting ideas.
3. It helps keep 'the money' happy.
Unless your project is entirely self-funded, you have stakeholders. They may be external investors or senior executives within an organization who have allocated funds needed to green-light projects. And any of these people with a vested interest in your project will be eager to gauge its progress.
Pilots bring those stakeholders along for the ride. When a stakeholder can see, feel, touch and interact with your creation at the earliest stages, he or she will feel more invested, engaged and likely more motivated to continue supporting your efforts, which is of particular importance should additional resources be needed somewhere down the line.
4. It gives you a clearer vision for commercial success.
No matter how cool a product idea is, the suits and bean counters will always want to know, “How can it make us money?” Commercialization is a whole other challenge, even for the most promising products. By piloting a product into the market at the earlier stages, the company is able to form a very early view as to how to market and commercialize it down the road.
Feedback from the initial engagement can help inform critical decisions related to strategy and give the company the early jump on lining up the right partners, procuring the needed resources and ultimately cutting down the typical time it takes to begin seeing return on investment.
So, who doesn't want to be innovative?
Every company craves the innovation label, even those who may be the furthest away from it. We know from any number of studies that consumers value innovative brands and will pay a premium for their products and services.
When a company has the confidence to engage consumers at the early stages of product development, to give them a chance to weigh in and have a role in shaping that product’s future, to take and incorporate constructive feedback without vulnerability, the brand will be seen as innovative and forward thinking.
And, who doesn’t want that?
All that said, piloting is not for the faint of heart. The feedback you will receive will be authentic and honest. A thin skin, sensitive feelings, egos and rigidity won’t work. Some organizations that have always employed a highly structured product-launch process may be resistant to putting a product or service that is not yet airtight and market-ready into the hands of users. And that is understandable.
But, in many cases, the costs of not piloting may be too great to ignore. Because the world moves fast. While you are running focus groups and spending dollars on commissioning and analyzing market studies, that innovative, disruptive and market-changing idea you had may lose its luster; or, worse yet, it may have since been developed by your competitor.
The solution? Piloting.