Thursday, May 06, 2010

Innovation Failure Points: Idea Generation

As strange as it may seem, one of the most innocuous and simple activities within an innovation process is also one of the most common failure points.  Idea generation, a task that any child can do effectively, is a daunting task for many firms, and a common innovation failure point, for a number of reasons.  This post is part of a continuing series of posts on innovation failure points across the innovation process.  Previously we've examined a "weak link" at the start, when linking to strategy, and when gathering insights from customers and prospects.  Today, we look at the strangest failure point of all - the one task everyone should do well.

The first reason is cynicism.  Too many people approach an idea generation session with a tremendous amount of cynicism.  Most of them don't expect the meeting to be conducted well, don't expect their ideas to be heard or valued, and don't expect anything to happen to the ideas once the session is over.  In many ways, idea generation often fails before it starts.  It's hard enough to encourage people to lower their defenses and actively engage, especially when the cynicism about idea generation is so high.  Most organizations fail to get the best ideas out of their people, and are usually happy to walk away from idea generation sessions with very obvious incremental ideas.  Most idea generation sessions are failures hailed as triumphs.

The second reason most idea generation sessions are failures is due to poor facilitation and planning.  Many idea generation sessions are run by the individual who needs the ideas, and who has pre-conceived notions or bias.  Many of these individuals aren't even aware that they steer the conversation and reject ideas out of hand during the event.  Often there's little planning, poor problem definition and scope development.  The facilitation of the event matters as well.  A good idea generation session involves everyone who is invited, breaks the participation barriers and encourages wild, even crazy ideas, to allow those ideas that are just beyond the mainstream to emerge.  Poor planning and facilitation dampen the engagement and involvement, and once again lead to a small number of ideas that are relatively obvious.

The third reason most idea generation sessions are failures is due to a lack of follow up.  Even in situation where the planning and preparation work is done well, and the cynical participants are pleasantly surprised by the engagement of the team and the positive facilitation, it is exceptionally easy to fail if the individual or team responsible for actually evaluating the ideas fails to do so, or simply becomes a "black box".  If the ideas aren't followed up, and if the results of the session aren't publicized, then all the good work up front goes for naught.

The final reason most idea generation sessions are failures is that we overly emphasize one tool - brainstorming.  Like the old adage says, when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail.  If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, there must be nearly as many methods and techniques to generate ideas.  Brainstorming is a valuable tool, massively misused and overused.  Consider learning and implementing some new techniques, like brainwriting which will involve those more reticent to provide ideas in public, or SCAMPER to provide a set of tools, or use analogies from other industries.  These are just a few tools that can help generate ideas.  Remember the tools can be situational and more or less valuable depending on the participants and the kinds of ideas to be generated.

No doubt you are thinking that idea generation is a serious failure point.  You'd be right.  A task that is conducted everyday, in many organizations, that is considered such a useful tool, is so often abused and misused that it creates a tremendous amount of distrust and cynicism, which then creates a vicious cycle.  Each new idea generation session that's run poorly, or planned poorly, or doesn't result in actions on the ideas simply ramps up more cynicism.  What should be a fun, engaging and valuable experience becomes drudgery that people choose to avoid if possible, and usually results in very incremental ideas.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:55 AM


Blogger Dennis D. McDonald said...

I like the suggestion of using different tools and techniques -- too much attention to "sessions" might also be a problem. Creating an environment in which innovation is always encouraged -- and rewarded -- seems more productive to me.

5:30 AM  
Blogger devil bug said...

The problem comes when innovation is expected to come from the right levels of the organization. Ideas need to be played with and not left to die on the vine.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:02 AM  
Blogger Dan Roberts said...


Thank you for calling out the excessive reliance on brainstorming. Although it is a great exercise, you would think that a business culture so obsessed with innovation would have evolved a little more over the past six decades since the inception of the practice. My frustration with the current tactics for generating business ideas actually compelled me to research and write my own book on the topic. You can check out the website for the book here: The Innovator's Sourcebook I would love to send you a review copy if you are interested. Just shoot me an e-mail at the address listed with this comment.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Silvio said...

Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again
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Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator.
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Blogger better ck said...

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