Innovation does not start with idea generation
But that's not the subject of today's post. Today's post deals with the fallacy that innovation "starts" with idea generation. I'm picking on Mary's book because it was at hand and the latest to suggest that innovation starts with idea generation. I know this because it says so on page. 85, but Mary's writing does not stand alone. Far too often I hear people suggest or read that innovation starts with idea generation. Sorry, no - and my apologies in advance to Mary for calling out this small problem in what was otherwise a very good book.
Idea generation is at best the "mid point" of an innovation process, because by the time you start generating ideas you need to have:
- A good sense of the strategic goals and direction of the organization
- A good sense of trends and the unfolding future
- An understanding of unmet or unarticulated needs
First, you need to understand the strategic goals, direction and strategic intent of the business, and how it will remain constant or change. This aspect forms the "framework" for your idea generation. If your firm has the goal to be the best at customer intimacy or experience, then that should inform your idea generation - you'll want to spend far more time focused in those areas than in operational excellence. Too often there are no clear guidepost or guardrails to shape your thinking and in those cases all ideas and all strategies seem equal. They aren't, and if you present ideas out of sequence or out of context with strategy then you'll find that out.
Second, you need to understand something about the future. After all, the average time to market for an idea in most large firms is between 24 and 36 months, idea generation to commercialization. That means an idea you generate today will be birthed into a world two to three years from the one we are in today. How much change will occur in that space? If you create an idea today that assumes the world will be the same as it was when the idea was created, you've shot behind the curve and the idea will seem dated from the start. Not to mention the fact that observing trends and understanding where the future may evolve is important. You may spot entirely new opportunities by spending time understanding the future, and your products or services may arrive at exactly the right time.
With those two factors safely covered, you can also understand what customers want and need. You do this through many different qualitative exercises - voice of the customer, observation, lead users, ethnography, etc. What you are seeking are the unrecognized, unmet or unarticulated needs that align to your strategic goals and to the unfolding future. At the intersection of those three converging factors are ideas that will be relevant, valuable and in line with your capabilities.
These factors create the "context" that identifies customer needs in line with future trends and aligned to strategic goals. Within that context or framework, generating ideas becomes far more easy and far more robust - actually becomes safer, since you are generating ideas you know link to strategic goals and to customer needs. It's less arbitrary since you know the goals, potential futures and customer needs.
Innovation doesn't start with, and doesn't end with, idea generation. In fact we should place far less emphasis on the idea generation phase than we do, but it seems to get the most focus, probably because it is the easiest to organize and any one can participate, while the other tasks require real thinking, real planning and real work. Generating ideas should be the outcome of good strategic thinking and careful assessment of customer behaviors and needs. If that work is done well, idea generation is almost an afterthought, but it certainly isn't the first step in the process.