General Mills VP on getting to the first dollar fast, failure, key metrics

Few companies have as strong a track record when it comes to open innovation and pilot testing as Minneapolis-based General Mills. The $17.6 billion food giant sometimes puts packages on a shelf without actual product inside, as a way of learning whether consumers will pick it up and take it to the cash register. Executives there talk about creating “lemonade stands” as a quick and cheap way to test new product concepts, instead of setting up a “big bang” product launch and hoping for the best.

And the company expects failure and learning to be part of the journey of any new product wending its way to a consumer’s kitchen.

“In the past,” says Jim Kirkwood, Chief Science and Technology Development Officer, “if you had a failure, it was over. But now, what we’ve done is actually built it into our process.” If you don’t fail at least once before a finished product winds up on store shelves, he adds, “you probably didn’t test enough.”

Kirkwood was the guest on a recent Innovation Leader Live call. He covered:


    • Organizational structure around innovation, and how different functions work together
    • Gathering consumer insights and helping more people in the organization understand consumer behaviors
    • Generating hypotheses about “jobs to be done” and building opportunity maps
    • Finding outside partners to work with, whether large or small, and making sure co-creation projects don’t bog down
    • Using product turns as a key metric.

You can listen to the complete call below, moderated by Innovation Leader Editor Scott Kirsner, or read an edited transcript. (We’ve also posted a two-minute excerpt in which Kirkwood discusses how General Mills has adapted the “lean startup” approach to its business.)

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