The art of building hot-potato concepts isn’t hard to master

Product developers, pressed by time or ego to enter risky markets, think up hot potato, product concepts. They rely on wishful, inside-out thinking. They resist the option of a quick outside-in test of the concept. For their boss, the result is a problem.

The boss believes the concept does not merit development. Taking heed of internal politics on failure, the boss hires a consultant to do customer research work the developer refuses to do.

During my 35 years as a customer research provider, I’ve helped clients with 9 hot potato projects. Nine is a small sample, but a pattern emerged.

In the journey to understand the pattern, I discovered three common factors.

  1. Each project targeted a high-risk market. And for each, the developer lacked practical knowledge of the market and its competitors.
  2. Each boss hired me to do the customer research, with one condition. Before starting the project, I had to convince the developer that my work was worthwhile.
  3. When the boss stopped the project, as a result of my work, I became the client’s scapegoat. A scapegoat is a person who is blamed for the mistakes of others.

Cast in the role of a scapegoat seems unfair. But, experienced consultants see the role as a valuable attribute of their work. Bosses need to cast consultants as scapegoats. Then the boss can navigate the hidden culture of internal politics as regards failure.

For example, in the first of these hot-potato projects the developer had a good reputation in the firm. He was the champion who developed two game-changing material science discoveries. Now, pressed by a short time limit from the board of directors, he needed another game-changer.

His wishful thinking settled on only one option as a game-changing, product concept. This option was to license and fix a flawed process for cleaning up nuclear waste sites. He felt his R&D guys might invent a way to fix the flaw.

During this project I had in-depth conversations with 30 potential customers in the nuclear waste industry. The flawed process was familiar to these well-informed individuals. They had no interest in the developer’s product concept. Even without a flaw, the process doesn’t meet government regulations on waste disposal.

At the end of the journey came my first experience in being labeled as a client’s scapegoat. It felt unfair. To my surprise, customer research work at the client increased.

Furthermore, the client hired me to lead workshops on poker-player thinking for decision making. There, developers learn to estimate the future of a product concept when entering a risky market. They generate realistic, useful probabilities of product failure.
To decrease the odds of failure, they think like a poker player.