Monday, March 23, 2009

The idea spectrum

One of the most difficult and troubling aspects of innovation is the lack of clear, concise definitions. One man's "incremental" innovation is another's disruption. One team's ideation is another's brainstorming. Given that there are many tools and methods, and no overriding agreed standard, it can be confusing when talking to clients, prospects or even team members about innovation.

Take, for example, the word "idea". Generally speaking, everyone understands that an idea is something that is not fully formed, and represents something new. However, an idea can represent a very simple change to an existing product or service (the "next turn of the screw" so to speak) or could represent some radically different, disruptive concept. An idea can also represent a range of opportunities or spaces instead of discrete, tactical products or services. So, when someone suggests that it is time to generate some ideas, a little definition is in order. What kinds of ideas (incremental or disruptive, or both) over what time frame, with what outcome or intent?

There are four time horizons worth discussing. The first is the easiest - what does our next iteration of an existing product or service look like? Usually this means a timeline of no more than 18 months. The second time horizon is the horizon for creating a completely new product. This means at least 2 years and possibly as many as four or five. The third time horizon is the one in which we contemplate entering a new market or line of business. That's a three to six year time horizon at a minimum. Finally, there's the long term scenario planning or future assessment time horizon, which looks at seven to ten years at a minimum. I can generate ideas that are valid in any of these time horizons. What I need to know is: which time horizon is valid for this particular exercise?

Next, let's talk about the outcome of the idea. Most people think about ideas becoming new physical products. However, there are more opportunities, and more powerful opportunities, in innovation around services, business models, channels and customer experiences. So, it is important early in the discussion of "ideas" to include or exclude what our expectations about the outcome of the ideas. If ideas about new business models are acceptable, then say so - but also understand the impact that has on the time horizon.

Additionally, it is important to describe what impact the ideas should have or what the sponsors of the ideation expect. If the ideas should be incremental in nature, with less risk and greater opportunity for implementation, then say so. If the sponsors are open to more disruptive and risky ideas, then say that. One of the biggest failings of innovation programs is a mismatch between what the sponsor of a brainstorm wants and what is produced. Either the sponsor wants disruptive ideas and gets safe incremental ideas or vice versa. That is the manifestation of poor definition and communication.

Look, doing innovation is difficult enough as it is in this climate or any business climate. Innovation requires risk, uncertainty, failure and a departure from the status quo. If we expect people to get engaged and to deliver useful ideas, then we need to be very clear about what we want - the kinds of ideas. Using specific language and describing the outcomes or types of ideas you expect, you'll be more likely to receive ideas you can use.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:59 PM

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