By now it seems to be common knowledge that when talking about Innovation and New Product Development, the Fuzzy Front End is where the magic happens. However, I've come to the conclusion that it's not that way at all. All the fuzzy magic people are talking about really happens in the middle. Here's my logic.
Let's assume that the true beginning starts with the identification of an opportunity. This typically happens from observing the environment (let's say this is the market, but it could be any context), and deriving the reasons why the environment behaves the way it does. In the consumer world, this is where we derive the consumers' motivation for their behavior. The goal is to to take this knowledge about what motivates the market, and translate it into a viable product or service that will satisfy motivations better than the currently available alternatives. In other words, we want our consumers to love us so that we can crush our competitors.
Yes, it does take work to derive a consumer's motivations from their behavior. It also takes work to come up with a creative solution in the form of a product. But what happens in-between the two steps? Consumer motivations may be real, but they are very intangible, and in their pure form they are not satisfactory product requirements.
What's required in the Fuzzy Middle is the translation between the two worlds. It's almost impossible to make a direct, linear link between the attributes of a caterpillar and those of a butterfly, but what goes on in the chrysalis is what I'm talking about. That's the Fuzzy Middle. In the product development world this is a very confusing, scary place. Most companies are designed to optimize the manufacturing process. Developing something new goes against the grain. Market research often happens in companies, but that's because the specific activities involved can usually happen without disrupting the manufacturing process. But when we try to implement what we learned the antibodies come out in full force.
In order for companies to innovate in truly meaningful ways, there must be a place where the Fuzzy Middle can survive and thrive. This is difficult because it combines simultaneous measures from both worlds. It's where new ideas are developed, concepts are refined, and business models are born in order to satisfy new opportunities. It's where research is simultaneously generative and evaluative; product concepts are often developed to generate new information, not to be manufactured. They are evaluated based on how well they deliver an experience, and how well they help us to define success criteria for final products. It's where there is more than one right answer; but there is clearly a difference between right answers and wrong answers. It's where the balance between the competing points I just mentioned must be rediscovered for each new project. There is no clear, repeatable model or process to get from one side to the other.
If that doesn't describe fuzzy, then I don't know what does. If the above paragraph makes no sense to you, then you probably spend your days on one side of the fence or the other. If you're smacking your head with the sudden realization of why you've been so frustrated lately, then it's likely that you've been living in the Fuzzy Middle without knowing it. This isn't hard to do, since most companies sort of shut their eyes and muddle through hoping they get out alive and with an acceptable product intact. Instead, rather than pushing through to get to a defined product as quickly as possible, try using the Fuzzy Middle to translate intangible opportunities into tangible solutions in a deliberate way. Work to embrace ambiguity of multiple right answers while driving out the uncertainty of not knowing the different between the right and wrong answers. These ideas may be difficult to grasp, but if you do nothing else, just try to recognize the Fuzzy Middle that's passing through your development process - and enter the chrysalis...