And finally… Introducing the Innovation Process. (Part 1 of 3)

Let’s recap as we’ve covered quite a bit of ground. In this series of posts, we’ve skipped through the following:

  1. Why big companies must innovate? Because the alternative is death.
  2. When big companies innovate? As a result of extreme duress or hubris
  3. What startup traits should big companies use? Speed of execution and the ability to embrace failure
  4. Which big companies innovate? All of them, given enough time
  5. What are the prerequisites? Doers, Fiscal Alignment, Corporate Desire, Managed Management and Vital Nutrients. 

So what do you actually do? Time for another chart.

Steps in the Innovation Process

Innovation is a process consisting of 3 primary stages; Idea, development and production.

There are 3 stages in the innovation process: ideas, development and production. The order, nature and tasks for each stage are quite different, as is the team of people involved.

Stage 1: Ideas

What Usually Happens

Everyone focuses on ideas. The meaning of innovation has become inseparable from raw ideas for most people. When a big company decides they want to become innovative, the single most common first step is to set up some kind of internal idea harvesting program. It usually involves an internal facing crowd-sourcing tool, often the company intranet, and a light-weight “for the good of the company” speech by a few execs.

The initial result is a flurry of activity. Hundreds of ideas get submitted by enthusiastic employees. And then… silence. The whole initiative stalls. Why? Because the entire process was conceived with ideas as the end game.  Innovation isn’t just about ideas. Ideas are the seeds from which innovation grows. When a company focuses solely on ideas, ideas get harvested but there is no ability to execute on them

Without execution, ideas die.

When ideas die, employees quickly become jaded about the process and the entire innovation effort dies too.

What Should Happen

Ideas are like unlabeled seeds. When you plant them, you have no idea what will grow. It could be a beautiful flower, a high value crop, a voracious and toxic weed, a rare and exotic hybrid that demands high maintenance while delivering little in return, or something that simply cannot live in the climate it was planted in.

The point is that you don’t know what you have until you let it grow.

For that very reason, the idea team should be very small, very open minded and entirely unfocused on the end goal. Yes, you read that correctly.  True innovation comes from ideas that are given the room to grow into something beautiful.

Let’s go back to our plant analogy and explore what usually happens when ideas are presented.

Picture a charming garden scene. An unknown seed is lovingly planted, gently watered and left in the sun. A small green shoot starts to appear. WHAM. “Weed!” yells the No-Body as they slam the shoot with a 20 pound shovel and grind it into the dirt.

Colorful analogies aside, this is usually what happens. An idea is immediately killed because it has been tried before, is incompatible with the company’s business or otherwise wrong for any number of reasons.

You have to let the idea grow. You cannot burden a new idea with the baggage of what the company currently is or does. That simply should never be part of the idea stage. Yes, you want to define a broad territory – GE should probably not be evaluating retail pie outlets – but that’s it. You can’t see something new if you don’t leave your home turf.

Raw ideas have to go through a lot of evolution before they turn into products (and again, I’m using product as a general term for an end result). The earliest stages of that evolution need to occur in a safe environment. That means a very small, committed team focused on harvesting ideas. It also means creating a team where NO is dis-empowered. Sometimes it is helpful to literally ban the word altogether, or at the very least limit each team member to just one no per meeting.

At the idea stage, you should be looking for ways to say yes and proceed, not no and stop.

So how do you evaluate the idea? On its own merits. One of the best gauges is whether or not it is based on some kind of insight. Is there an underlying truth that this idea correlates strongly to?

You can also look at the excellence and uniqueness of the idea, but frankly, those are often overrated.  Apple wasn’t the first smartphone vendor. They weren’t even the first touchscreen smartphone vendor, or the first to enable mobile apps. The idea for the iPhone (and the iPod) really wasn’t unique at all.  The end result of their innovation pipeline was breathtaking, but the idea mostly wasn’t.

When you’ve selected the best and brightest of your ideas, then it’s on to the development stage. And that’s my next post.

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