Mind the Gap
Mind the gap is a great English expression, which is really a warning to watch your step as you move from the platform into the cars of the Underground. There is a gap between the platform and the car, and I guess if you miss it you'll plummet several feet to the rails below. There's another gap that worth minding in an innovation setting - the gap between generating ideas and evaluating them and creating prototypes.
Let's face it - generating ideas is fun. How often are you told to think creatively and open your mind to new possibilities at work? Isn't that what brainstorming is supposed to be about - at least at some level? Brainstorming is about reaching a little out of your comfort zone to think beyond the near horizon and generate ideas for the next product or process. It's a little free-form, wheeling and dealing with little judgement until its time to actually evaluate the ideas. However, how many times have you participated in a brainstorming session with the sinking feeling that you are in Groundhog Day, the movie? You know these same ideas have been generated before, and you know that, even worse, it's likely none of the ideas will be acted on.
That's because there's a yawning void in most organizations between idea generation and actual implementation. Geoffrey Moore, in his classic "Crossing the Chasm" defined this as a, well, chasm that needed to be crossed. In my thinking, it's a gap that needs to be spanned by processes, expectations and systems.
When you enter a brainstorm session, your first question to the facilitator or person who called the brainstorm should be - what's going to happen to these ideas once we're finished? Who's documenting them, where will they be published, who is responsible for evaluation and moving these ideas along? If there aren't any clear answers to these questions, you may be in for another round of Groundhog Day.
A well-defined process will take the ideas that are generated, place them in a database for further elaboration and review by the team, and move those ideas into some type of database for further definition, context and evaluation. In an ideal world, this would happen fairly quickly and seamlessly. In reality, what happens too often is that the ideas, written on a big sheet of paper, are rolled up and placed in the corner of someone's office. It's almost as if the brainstorming session itself was the hoped for outcome, rather than the ideas.
One goal I think every firm should have is a metric which measure the time from idea generation to first prototype or simulation. People can't react to ideas that are not modeled or simulated for them - it's simply too hard to get everyone to "think" the same way. Place a prototype or simulation in front of them, however, and the reactions are worth their weight in gold. The speed to prototype is important because it helps highlight the "gap" between idea generation and the resulting next steps. A long gap indicates that your firm does not have the processes and systems necessary to bridge the gap, and will probably be beaten to the market fairly frequently. A short gap can actually increase cycle times but improve the product, as a rapid prototype receives a lot more commentary and feedback into the system.
Where innovation is concerned, the gap you should mind starts the minute you leave the brainstorm. Do all those ideas have a process to follow, or do they go right down the drain?