Prune before Innovating
I've just had the chance to read and review Brick by Brick, about the very similar fortunes of Lego. Lego also faced financial catastrophe, aggressively pruned products that weren't performing which freed up time and focus for the products that really mattered. Pruning matters, especially when it comes to innovation.
The concept of pruning comes from agriculture. Farmers prune plants to ensure that the fruit a tree or plant bears receives as much of the plant's resources as possible. While this may mean that the plant bears less fruit, the fruit the plant does bear is top quality. There are so many lessons that many firms could take away from this agricultural practice.
Get rid of the zombies
The first need for pruning in many organizations is to eliminate the zombies, those ideas that aren't really "alive" in any sense and haven't been killed. Every organization has tens of projects and ideas that simply get passed along, year after year. They are fine ideas that no one wants to fund or resource, and no one wants to kill. These ideas and projects clog up the innovation funnel, distract from what's important and aren't going to ever be implemented. A quick, sharp pruning of these ideas and projects is essential, if to do nothing more than free up mental RAM.
Get rid of the laggards and "me-toos"
Many firms have products that are simply laggards in their respective markets, or just "me toos" that allow the firm to claim to have a product in a particular space. These products take up valuable development and design time, occupy a space with very little financial return and deliver nothing to your bottom line. Yet they are fully resourced and once developed must be supported by marketing, sales, the channel and all other assets. Your team should examine the bottom 20% of your product portfolio to identify what you should stop doing, to free up space and resources for compelling new ideas and products.
Prune the pet projects
No matter how much we'd like to think that all management is scientific, every firm has a number of pet projects sponsored by executives who want to try out a particular technology or who want to enter a particular market. The pet projects are easy to spot and hard to kill, and frequently absorb a lot of resource for very little benefit. These pet projects are undertaken with little market research or understanding of the customer base and are rarely successful after launch.
Many clients ask us to help them accelerate their idea generation, speeding up the process and improving the ideas. We are happy to do that and I think have been very successful. But what we tell our clients is this: putting a 350 V-8 in a Model T is worse that useless. If we speed up the idea engine but lack resources to convert ideas into products and services, we frustrate everyone. The idea generators are frustrated because they see good ideas go to waste. Development personnel are frustrated because they are asked to make impossible tradeoffs and have years of backlogged work on products that often aren't interesting or compelling.
Before you radically improve your idea generation and innovation capabilities, or at least in parallel to that work, focus on your product portfolio and resource allocations in the development team. It is rare to find an organization that can't cut existing projects and even existing products to free up development time and resources to work on new and interesting concepts. Apple and Lego did the vicious pruning because they were forced to do so. The alternative was bankruptcy. You and your teams probably don't face the same burning platform, but you have the same internal issues. It's worse than useless to speed up good ideas when the development team has no bandwidth. Taking a knife to your portfolio of proposed projects and laggard products is a very valuable step in the task of becoming more innovative.