Improving the innovation gauntlet
I often compare many innovation projects to running a gauntlet, especially from the perspective of the idea.
If you think about innovation in just about any company, the work seems to start with the generation of an incredibly interesting, new idea. Often the idea is novel in several respects, and has the possibility to disrupt a market space or attract a range of new customers. I always want to archive that moment and the possibilities of those ideas, because once the idea leaves this stage, it is rare that the idea remains the same.
Typically the idea is pelted from all sides by individuals who want to shape the idea to their interpretation of the needs and wants of the market. Or by people who need to make the idea "fit" the existing business models, financial models, annual plans or other artificial containers we try to force upon the model. Then there are the people and processes that want to ensure the new idea doesn't cannibalize any existing product or service the firm offers. Then there are the individuals who have regulatory concerns, or health and safety concerns, or reputation concerns. As the idea moves through this gauntlet, each organization takes the opportunity to chip away the aspects of the idea that are threatening to them, or that challenge the status quo. Over time the idea is smoothed, rounded and polished, and becomes so incremental as to be hardly comparable to the original idea cooked up in the idea generation session.
If our organizations do one thing really well, it's paring down strange, hairy, audacious ideas into carefully contrived, simplistic concepts that can be presented without fear to mass audiences. No wonder so many firms have so many look-alike products and services.
How do you escape the "gauntlet" mentality and commercialize the really interesting, radical idea that was what you started with? Through focus on the customer need.
In almost every situation where the idea is trimmed, shaped or reduced, the individual or team doing so isn't reshaping the idea to meet or exceed customer wants and needs, they are changing the idea to make it fit with internal goals, methods and expectations. Once the idea leaves idea generation, suddenly the customer's wants and needs take a back seat to what the firm believes is important and worthy. Most of the work done on an idea once it leaves idea generation is not to the benefit of the customers to satisfy their unmet needs, but is done to satisfy the internal machinery and expectations of the internal processes. Most organizations aren't adding value to the idea to improve it for the customer, they are simplifying and reducing the concept to make it internally tolerable.
Here's what you should do. Any idea that must run the evaluation, funding and commercialization gauntlet should have an exceptionally clear definition of the problem or opportunity it is meant to solve, and a clear rationale about why it is important that the features or attributes of the idea exist. Any team or individual who wishes to change or modify the idea must justify their actions on the basis of customer needs, not on the basis of internal processes or to protect existing products or services. Instead of saying "we can't do..." the arguments should always be "the customer needs...".
The unfortunate but often true fact is that the best way to do this is to assign an "idea champion" for each idea, a person who is passionate about the idea and willing to run the gauntlet with the idea to ensure consistency from start to finish. Idea champions bring with them their own set of challenges, not least of which is temporary blindness to ideas that have missed the mark. Rather, we prefer to hold each team to an honest accounting of the work they've done to further an idea, and any changes, especially in the scope of the idea, the features and attributes of the idea are documented in light of the customer need, not in terms of the business process or decision making.
Why do we subject our ideas to processes akin to torture devices developed by the ancient Romans to punish criminals and cowards? Why do we allow really interesting ideas to be shaped, formed and molded into "me too" products because of internal competition, fear and uncertainty rather than creating the compelling solutions that existed at the start? Let's turn the innovation gauntlet into a mechanism to improve and speed ideas to market, rather than a process to reduce and distract ideas from becoming interesting new products and services.