Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting Innovation Backwards

So I had lunch today with a friend who described another friend's innovation approach.  It boiled down to "lets go generate a lot of ideas".  The theory being that once they had a lot of ideas they'd find a valuable one that would be important and relevant.  This approach always reminds me of the story of the little girl digging in the horse barn.  Her father spots her and asks "why are you digging in that pile of horse manure?" (PG for mixed audiences).  Her response?  If there is all this manure here, there must be a pony in here too.  Corporate innovators are often like the little girl, digging in a manure pile of ideas, convinced there's a pony there somewhere.

Far, far too many organizations, when given the chance to innovate, rush out to generate a bunch of ideas.  There are several reasons they do this:
  1. They are familiar with idea generation
  2. It feels like they've accomplished something - a list of ideas
  3. They now have a pile of stuff to wade through
  4. They've been told that generating lots of ideas is important (and in context, it is)
  5. Management wants to see ideas
What they are doing, basically, is generating ideas, searching for an answer.  Which is exactly backwards.  What they should do is identify an answer (significant opportunity or challenge) and then generate ideas (solutions).

But this seems counterproductive.  Identifying answers - opportunities or challenges means taking time to research existing business challenges, prioritizing needs, understanding customer requirements.  This doesn't seem like "innovation" and doesn't deliver quick ideas.  So, after a month or two of following this path impatient management, not understanding the approach asks "where are the ideas?".  So, far too many firms follow the first approach, since they think they understand the tools and know they need to deliver quickly.

But delivering poor, misaligned ideas quickly is just another way to deliver rapid failure.  When your ideas aren't relevant or valuable, no matter how quickly you generate them, or if they fail to attract powerful sponsors or funding, who cares how quickly you generated them.

As with many things in life, received wisdom has it exactly backwards.  Identifying the key challenges, understanding the links to strategic goals, deciphering customer needs leads to understanding the potential answer.  Only then are you ready to generate ideas that matter.  Or, as Einstein said "given an hour to solve a major problem I'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes working on the solution".  Once again, our approach is exactly backwards, which is why so many idea generation activities fail to deliver great solutions.

If you generate a lot of ideas without clear context or in answer to an important strategic question or need, you are simply shoveling the manure, looking for the pony that has already left the barn.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:03 AM


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