Thursday, July 01, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love idea collection

If like me you are a film buff, you may be familiar with the Peter Sellers movie Dr. Strangelove.  The subtitle has always been my favorite:  How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.  In case you haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend it.  Sellers plays a number of characters in this movie, which is an "over the top" look at strategic planning in the military and the potential use of nuclear weapons.  At it's heart is a paradox.  Both we and our enemies (in this case the Russians) need nuclear arms but don't want to be the first to use them.  However, if our enemies use them, we want to be sure to retaliate and wipe them off the planet.  So we spend more and more to build weapons we hope to God we'll never use.  Anyway, rent it if you haven't seen it.

What Dr. Strangelove has to do with innovation, at least for me, has been the paradox of what I like to call "idea collection".  About 90% of the time we field calls from prospects, they are seeking to generate and retain a bunch of ideas.  Most of these folks don't have a specific problem to solve or need to address, and aren't sure what they'll do with the ideas once they've been captured.  But what they are sure they need is a method to generate and to store lots of ideas.  From our perspective this is nice, but completely misguided and insufficient.  But over time like many of the characters in the movie I've come to learn that I need to quit worrying and learn to love the collection of ideas.  Here's why collection of ideas is insufficient for innovation, if not downright dangerous.

First, when you collect ideas from a broad range of people, they expect them to be acted on.  Usually people have an ax to grind or a pet project they haven't been able to fund, so their "ideas" become things they've been anxious to change for quite a while, and haven't found the money or resources.  Since people are entering ideas they have some passion about, they will want to see some action on those ideas.

Second, these ideas usually don't pertain to anything the executive team considers strategic or important.  If so, they would have been funded in the past.  Too often an innovation effort becomes a way to resurface old projects and concepts that were near and dear to a few people but aren't strategic or valuable. Ideas that aren't valuable or strategic will simply sit in the idea collection (box, system, software) clogging up the pipeline.  This indicates to some folks that the executive team isn't really interested in innovation, since there are a lot of ideas that simply don't move.

Third, you need to have some specific problem to solve or opportunity to address, and resources or funding, to move an idea out of the system.  Collect all the ideas you like, but until one solves a critical problem or addresses a new revenue stream or business model, the ideas won't attract attention, except for the fact that they seem a bit stagnant and stale.

Fourth, you need to have people to read and interact with the ideas, who can register their thoughts and reactions, and consistent evaluation criteria to rank and prioritize the ideas.  If the ideas don't seem appealing to the participants, they won't move ahead, and if there aren't consistent evaluation criteria the ideas can't be adequately ranked.  Again, ideas will enter the system and stagnate.

All of these things are true, and all of them beside the point for individuals and firms who ardently believe that "innovation" is about capturing ideas in a box or system or software.  So, like the characters in Dr. Strangelove I have learned to stop worrying about idea collection and start embracing it.  Please, by all means, collect all the ideas you care to.  We'll still be here when you realize there's much more to innovation than establishing a database of ideas.

I realize now why the collection of ideas seems so urgent and so important to our prospects.  It seems like real progress.  Finally everyone can express their ideas and the firm can capture them in a system or software solution.  Clearly that solves one problem, but simply opens up a whole host of other problems.

  • Are they the "right" ideas from the right people?
  • Do they solve an important problem or address a new opportunity?
  • Are the ideas in line with strategic goals?
  • Is anyone willing to get behind the idea, sponsor it and provide resources?
  • Do you have a way to select the best ideas out of the hundreds or thousands you may receive?
Collecting ideas is like collecting coins.  Everyone has coins in their pocket or purse, so there are thousands of coins available.  However, a true collector needs specific coins to add to his or her collection, so while he or she may have a handful of change, none of those coins matter.  Finding the right coin, in the right condition, at the right time and with the right cost is where they true genius lies.  The same is true with innovation.

So, by all means collect all the ideas you want.  Just make sure that you have the ability to spot the few really outstanding ones out of the mass of ideas you'll receive, and that you can ascribe importance and value to those few ideas effectively.  That's where the real innovation magic happens.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:17 AM

3 Comments:

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