Thursday, June 20, 2019

Ideas are easy, good ideas are hard

I'm writing a series of posts that examine some of my lessons learned after over 15 years of corporate innovation consulting.  Past posts have included the concept of needing a why and a how for innovation, why ideas need a sponsor and how to understand the range of innovation options your company will consider.  In this post I want to discuss the proliferation of ideas and their relationship to innovation. 

Ideas are easy

Ideas are the raw material of innovation.  There can be little doubt about that.  Whether your innovation process is need driven (finding a need and then finding a solution) or emergent technology or idea driven (having a technology or idea and seeking a market) ideas represent a recurring theme.  And the fact is, ideas are easy.  If you doubt this, ask a five year old about their ideas for their bedtime, what to have for dinner or any other situation.  Everyone has ideas, some have better ideas than others, but we are awash in ideas.

The fact that so many people are spending so much time generating ideas creates a problem.  There is only so much bandwidth to review, evaluate and process ideas, so many ideas never get reviewed or considered.  And, since many ideas carry the idea generator's hope and dreams, it's really easy for cynicism to creep in to any idea generation or innovation process.  After all, hundreds or thousands of ideas could be generated, but only a handful will be selected.  There's only so much resource availability in any business to consider and manage ideas.  Many will never be selected.

Good ideas are hard

Few ideas ever reach the point where they are carefully considered, evaluated and moved on to become new products and services.  As an example, I used to have a sticky note on my PC to remind me of the rather fatal statistics.  ABC once published the number of show ideas they received in a year, the number of pilots they made and the number of shows they actually premiered.  I no longer have the data but it was approximately 800 show ideas, 50 pilots and 5 premiers.  Or, a little less than a 1% return on ideas.  Which seems about right given other statistics on new idea generation and conversion I've seen.

Does this mean all the other ideas (785 in the case of TV shows) were terrible?  No, it just says that the producers and sponsors felt the five were the best at that time.  Ideas have moments when they are more compelling or less compelling.  You don't want to be too early or too late with an idea.  An idea can be a "good" idea for a certain setting, or for a particular demographic but not for everyone.  Ideas may be "good" or "bad" based on their ability to generate revenue or profits (or not).  In other words, there's a lot that goes into determining whether or not an idea is good or bad, some qualitative, some quantitative, and some simply in the eye of the beholder.

What's needed is more context

For companies to innovate successfully and continually, they don't need more ideas, they need better ideas more attuned to current and emerging needs and opportunities that align with corporate strategies.  To get those ideas, companies need to do a better job educating their people about what matters in an idea, why it matters, and what key issues, opportunities or strategies good ideas must solve or address.  This means that strategy must be clear, goals and needs carefully defined and emerging opportunities constantly identified and communicated.  When companies do a better job of identifying emerging needs, markets and opportunities, people can do a better job creating ideas that match those opportunities, reducing ideas that are interesting distractions.  Fewer, better ideas reduces the number of ideas that can't be reviewed, increases the probability of success and build confidence in the entire team.

This observation means that there is actually more pressure on senior executives and product and service leaders to get their strategies right, to identify emerging opportunities and communicate them, and to tell people what ideas they actually want and need, and to act when their teams provide the ideas that meet those needs.  Good innovation is rarely a failure of the masses of people trying to generate ideas, it is a failure to provide the best context and identify needs and opportunities that are worth solving.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:37 AM


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