The Long Sleep: Innovative Product Gestation

You could call it hibernation, but that’s too kind. You could call it neglect, yet some are working on it pushing the proverbial boulder up the corporate mountain. To be kind, let’s simply call it The Long Sleep. This condition happens inside organizations when an innovation concept bounces along internally for a long time without launching.

Let’s say the concept scores very well on qualitative testing; however, a tentative product manager wants to be assured of its success. He, the product manager, orders a pricing study and a broad-spectrum quantitative study. The results are promising, but anxiety persists. There is no direct executive sponsor for the concept and his bonus is not tied to such adjacent concepts. Therefore, he picks a close-in product-line extension where he has assured channel relationships, distribution, and a playbook to follow. The needle doesn’t really move, yet he gets moved to a different brand inside the organization.

What is lost is the potential to change the playbook for the better, be known for innovation, and either selling more products or higher-margin products to new segments. Even though he had market-tested concepts with proven desirability and both strategic and actual value, he lacked the fortitude to include anything with the word “innovation” in his formal product development pipeline. Risks, for some in some cultures, are to be avoided at all costs.

So the concept sits, collecting dust, never manifesting its value in the market. It may be one of 100s or even 1000s of concepts waiting in this weird Bardo state of non-existence, an ethereal thought form, data but not matter, a shadow that won’t expire and yet doesn’t live in the open.

The same thing happens with several product managers in a row—the concepts keep being tested, paraded in front of retailers or channel partners with fanfare and are met with interest, but the tooling never happens. This is the long sleep, a half-life gestation period some cultures unconsciously impose on concepts that are not directed related to their core business.

We’ve seen some concepts outlive corporate ownership, brand managers, product managers, innovation directors, and even whole teams. Then, out of the blue, we get called back to test a portfolio of innovation concepts. Inside this mix of concepts are products, services, or business model innovations from different projects we did for the brand five, seven, or even ten years ago.

One such famous case study is Doritos Locos Tacos: it is touted as the cunning story of how Taco Bell and Frito-Lay put together one of the most successful products in fast-food history. The sales numbers are, indeed a success. But the secret at hand is that the concept bounced from desk to desk for more than 10 years, even when both brands were owned by the same holding company. Imagine these sales  (north of a billion in a little over a year for this product line) would have hit 10, nine, eight, seven years earlier. Corporate fear kept the concept gestating for a decade of missed revenue. You may infer your own lessons from this tale.