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The fuzzy front end of the innovation process

The fuzzy front end is the creative beginning of the innovation process that determines the success of the product development and implementation.

The fuzzy front end is the front part of the innovation process and covers all steps from strategy, idea generation to business plan. It feeds the product development process with innovation concepts as a basis for innovation projects. Compared to the other phases of the innovation process, the fuzzy front end is very creative and often unstructured.
The tasks and phases in the fuzzy front end of the innovation process are as follows.

1. Innovation strategy

The company strategy is at the very beginning of the innovation process. It provides orientation on what an organization wants to achieve and achieve with innovation. Specifically, the strategic contribution of innovations is defined. 

It also delimits the market and technology fields in which innovation is required. On this basis, the innovation strategy is defined, which are the guidelines for all tasks in the fuzzy front end of the innovation process.

2. Corporate Foresight

Innovation requires visionary foresight into the future. The future cannot be predicted, but it is possible to prepare and shape it. The task of the Corporate Foresight is to look for trends, make projections into the future, analyze their impact and derive options for action and ideas. In combination with the innovation strategy, this results in search fields that outline the topics in which a company wants to and should innovate. Methods used in this phase are, for example, the analysis of megatrends, trend scouting or scenario technology.

3. Roadmapping & search fields

Search fields are developed on the basis of the company and innovation strategy and the corporate foresight. Search fields are thematic fields in which an organization would like to develop innovations. They are based, for example, on trends, markets, customer needs, technologies and products. During this phase, the search fields are checked for their attractiveness and, depending on the industry, planned over the next three to five years. This results in the Innovation Roadmap, which is the core of strategic innovation management.

4. Search for ideas

The innovation roadmap provides orientation where to look for ideas, what the purpose of the next phase is. This step is probably the most creative of all the phases. Ideas are explored at all possible sources:

  • Technology scouting and analysis
  • Open innovation for the integration of experts, universities, customers, users, inventors, research institutes etc. into the development of ideas
  • Analysis of markets
  • Analysis of customer needs
  • Lead User
  • Patent and literature analyses
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Big Data Analysis
  • Collection of employee ideas
  • Targeted development of ideas with innovation methods such as Blue Ocean, the Lead User Method, etc.

All collected ideas are roughly defined and flow into an idea repository where further processing takes place. The aim of this phase is to open up the funnel as far as possible and to collect and develop as many ideas as possible.

5. Idea evaluation & selection

The challenge now lies in the idea evaluation phase. The aim of the idea search was to collect as many ideas as possible. But every collected idea also ties up resources in the evaluation of ideas. It is therefore important to filter out the best ideas with skill and relatively few resources. Good methodology is required here, firstly, that not too much time is lost, secondly, that bad ideas are filtered out as quickly as possible so that they no longer tie up resources and, thirdly, that good ideas do not fall through the grid and are lost. Methodically, a rough selection is recommended at the beginning. The filtered out ideas are qualitatively evaluated by expert opinions and evaluated quantitatively with criteria and values in order to obtain a prioritization. The top ideas identified here then go into the detailed evaluation, where their release and the next steps are decided upon. Thus, the aim of this phase is to bring out the most promising ideas that will move on to the next phase.

6. Innovation concept

In the final phase of the front end, innovation concepts or business plans are developed from the selected top ideas. This phase is very intensive for each idea, because markets, customer needs, requirements, feasibility, etc. are analyzed. In this phase, a lot of information about the idea is collected and analyzed. This means that it can either change very strongly in another direction or it can be stopped again if it becomes apparent that the potentials or the feasibility are not available. The output of this phase is a lot of knowledge and information about the idea in the form of an innovation concept, or as a business plan or requirement specification. These documents form the basis for the product development phase, into which the idea is then transferred and an innovation project is launched.

Looking at the 6 steps in the fuzzy front end, it becomes very clear how intense this phase is in the innovation process. It is the bridge from corporate strategy to the innovation project portfolio and, as a creative phase, it decides where a company puts the innovation focus.

Fuzziness in the innovation process

Compared to a highly structured process or project, the fuzzy front end of the innovation process is very vague. It is characterized by uncertainty and difficult planning: one does not know exactly what one is looking for. You don't know exactly what to find.

All activities are influenced by what you find. However, at the beginning of the phases you don't know what you will find. For example, it is possible to discover a new trend in brainstorming that you didn't have at the radar because you hadn't found it yet or because it is actually new. This trend can affect all phases of the idea, for example, creating new search fields.

However, a scenario such as the one described above is not negative, but quite positive. It is a matter of not overlooking and neglecting and, above all, getting to grips with the fuzziness with structure. The innovation system must be set up in such a way that new search fields, trends and ideas can be discovered at any time and that they have their place in the system and are processed immediately. This structure can be ensured by a system with six steps of the fuzzy front end of the innovation process. In addition, it requires the necessary openness from the processes and, above all, from people to include new topics and ideas on the radar at any time. Structure and flexibility are therefore not a contradiction in the fuzzy front end of the innovation process. In this way, it is also ensured that the innovation space is not restricted to itself, but that it is always kept as wide open as possible.


Conclusion - The fuzzy front end of the innovation process

The fuzzy front end, the early phase of the innovation process, covers all steps from corporate strategy to product development: innovation strategy, corporate foresight, search fields, roadmapping, idea search, idea evaluation and concept development.

The quality of the work in the front end determines the degree of innovation and the success of innovation in the later phases, because it provides the basis for the innovation projects. For example, it also ensures that no opportunities are missed.

Since one does not always know exactly what to find in the fuzzy front end, it is also called "fuzzy" or in English "spongy". On the one hand, the fuzzy front end requires structure, but also openness and flexibility so that on the one hand, all new ideas can be handled efficiently and effectively and, on the other hand, new topics can be discovered and taken up.


Tanja Eschberger-Friedl

With her clear and focused way of working, Tanja supports you with strategic innovation management and the successful development of product, process, and market innovations. Tanja always keeps an eye on the essentials. Holistic solutions are her aim. She applies her specialist knowledge as a scrum master and agility coach to achieve this.

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