Monday, June 12, 2006

Plenty of ideas

I was reading a recent Fast Company and in it was a good article about building an "army" of people who agree with and support your idea as you move it forward in your organization. The premise of the article - that ideas will move forward more quickly as there are more supporters - is one I can buy into. What bothered me a bit about the article was the supposition that in any company there are "plenty of ideas" just waiting to be worked.

I think this argument is uniformly accepted and generally meaningless. Of course there are plenty of ideas in any organization. Any place a bunch of humans congregate on a regular basis will have ideas. My seven year old son has some great ideas about space travel and fighting Darth Maul. The fact that he has some ideas does not mean they are valuable or useful. In most businesses I am sure there are plenty of ideas available. The problem is not a quantity problem, the problems facing innovation are deciding which ideas deserve funding and which will be viable by the time they are realized as new product or services or business models.

I've spoken with a lot of firms about their ideas and their innovation approaches recently. All of them tell me they have plenty of ideas. In fact there are often so many ideas mentioned or discussed that it becomes difficult to sort them out, and an analysis paralysis sets in on the team. With no clear definitions or sorting algorithms, who's to say an idea should or should not be investigated? With few clear innovation processes or methods, what's the right approach to foster one or more ideas? The challenge faced by most firms is not a quantity issue - it's an issue of ascertaining the quality of the ideas and investing in those that have merit.

This is especially difficult since ideas have varying degrees of difficulty and potential return. Should your firm focus primarily on incremental innovations, those ideas that bring out the "next" version of the product? Should your team investigate ideas that could change the way your organization works, or radically disrupt the marketplace you do business in? What's the expected return horizon for your ideas? Should your idea generation focus on improving existing products or creating new products? Without a tight alignment between corporate strategy and idea generation and selection, it will probably be very difficult for an organization to successfully implement an innovation process, since it will be easy to generate ideas, but hard to select and implement the appropriate ones.

I suspect in many businesses if you were to ask these questions, the answers you'd get are "Yes" to incremental, "Yes" to disruptive, "As soon as possible" for returns and "Both" for existing or new. Clearly most firms don't have the resources to chase this many, so some mechanism must be established to help select ideas. The real problem here is that our firms have become so quarterly focused that it is often hard to invest in concepts that may not pay off for some time, or to invest in ideas that have a high probability of failure, even thought the learning from the process may introduce a new product or service.

So, my answer to the "we've got plenty of ideas" statement is: so what? Who doesn't? The real differentiator will be "and we've got a methodology to select the ones to work".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:55 AM


Blogger Paul (from Idea Sandbox) said...

Jeffrey... what's that article... I don't think I've seen it and would love to check it out...

4:48 PM  
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