Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Innovation Bandwidth

According to most theories about process and process management, every process has a theoretical bandwidth - that is, the maximum amount of units per hour that the process can sustain. According to The Goal and other theory of constraint systems, every process has a bottleneck which limits throughput.

What's that got to do with innovation? Well, maybe quite a bit if your innovation process is limited in its throughput capability. If you need to manage several ideas at the same time and bring them forward as new products and services, does your firm have the bandwidth to do that successfully?

There are several strategies for moving a good idea through a process to become a new product or service. One of the more common approaches is to assign a "champion" who acts like a guide and wrangler, moving an idea forward through incubation, evaluation and new product development. This is a fine and accepted approach, but is clearly not an optimal approach for any business with more than a few ideas. Why? Well, for starters there's just not that many people who make good idea champions. It's a hard job to push a string uphill and takes a special kind of person with real commitment to the idea. In many cases the champion has to take on the management of the idea along with his or her regular workload. I think the number of these types of "champions" in any organization is going to be low.

Additionally, if your firm relies on a "champion" model, it stands to reason that the processes and systems probably aren't that great to support the idea management and incubation process. Where systems and processes are lacking, people fill in the difference. If that's the case, then the champion is working an idea with little help from any existing processes or systems, and that makes the work that much harder. The innovation bandwidth has to be small.

Another strategy is to implement a defined process and supporting systems to move ideas through an incubation and evaluation framework. While this approach is not a panacea, it can provide more innovation bandwidth as many people can participate in their specific phase or section of the process, rather than the entire process. Another benefit is that as more people are involved, the idea is evaluated from many different viewpoints and gains value.

A hybrid strategy that we've seen connects the "Champion" model with defined processes and systems. In that case, a champion is responsible for moving the idea with the participation of others using the established systems and processes.

Without established innovation and idea management processes and systems, the role of the champion is very difficult and the number of ideas which can be considered and incubated is small. In a time when innovation is increasingly important, why would you rely on an approach with such a severe bottleneck?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:02 AM

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