What is the role of 'thought leadership' in new product innovation?

Sept. 27, 2012 | by Darrel Suderman

"Thought Leadership" has become a trendy concept, but how can (or should) it be applied to new product innovation?

Old School Model

Early in my career, Management by Objectives (MBO) was the trendy business management model. For a food technologist, meeting MBOs meant everything. If you met the MBOs that were meticulously written out either 6 or 12 months prior, then you received a pay increase and eventual promotions. But in many cases, the performance metrics were laced with "generalizations" like "Develop two new chicken products" if you worked for a chicken processor. At the time, these new product generalizations seemed to work, and the flow of new product patents was continuous.

Evolution to R&D Leadership

During the days of 'Old School Thinking,' food and beverage R&D departments were the principle leaders in new product development – i.e. R&D led the way, and marketing followed. Many times new food and beverage products resulted from the emerging technologies and the application of technology to new concepts that resulted in new products. Since technology was the "differentiator," the marketing department had plenty of information to build a market differentiated media message. Life was good, and companies grew with the application of new technologies.

Evolution to Marketing Leadership

Eventually emerging technologies played a diminishing role in new product development, so marketing departments needed to step to the batter's box and hit new products out-of-the-ballpark with well written "market differentiation" messages and creative print and media content. In many cases today, R&D even reports to the chief marketing officer. This reporting message has enabled companies to keep their new products and menus "on message" and brought significant efficiencies to the new product development process.

Emerging Thought Leadership

With razor-thin marketing message differences, the food and beverage industry is slowly transitioning to "Thought Leadership" to gain the competitive advantage. I am speaking of both marketing and R&D thought leadership. The person that has taught me the most about marketing thought leadership is Denise Yohn. Denise has added creative and fresh new thinking into the marketing process of new products. Through her encouragement and vision, I have focused on bringing the same thought leadership to the new product development process – as well as to my students at Johnson & Wales University.

New Paradigm of Executive R&D Leadership

To be successful in the emerging worldview of R&D leadership, the old HR paradigm of type-A R&D business managers that run large R&D departments is out, and the new model of servant leaders with innovative thought leadership is IN! While many large corporate food companies continue to recruit R&D managers with resumes showing large org chart management, smart companies are starting to hire R&D managers with "creative thought leadership" from smaller companies because they understand these individuals will grow the bottom line in the future.

In follow-up, Food Technical Consulting (www.foodbevbiz.com) has scheduled a 1-day industry workshop in Denver on "Innovative Thought Leadership in New Product Development Nov. 6, 2012. Please contact me at dsuderman@foodbevbiz.com or 303-471-1443. A course manual will be available for sale to international small business operators who cannot attend.

Topics: Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Operations Management , Research & Development / Innovation

Darrel Suderman / Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., is president of Food Technical Consulting and founder of Food Innovation Institute. He has held senior R&D/QA leadership positions at KFC, Boston Market, Church's Chicken and Quiznos and led KFC’s development team of “Popcorn Chicken”, now a $1B international product –invented by Gene Gagliardi.
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