Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Innovation and the Baskin-Robbins effect

 I'll start out this post by noting that I like ice cream.  In fact, one could say that I am a connoisseur of ice cream.  I like to eat ice cream at home, and when I am traveling I like to sample the local styles and flavors.  Wisconsin, for example, has a lot of custard shops.  Italy has delicious gelato.  And so on.

A childhood treat was a visit to Baskin-Robbins, which is famous for its range of 31 flavors.  Every child dreamed of going to Baskin-Robbins, because they could choose from exotic flavors you'd never find in stores.  However, when I became a parent I dreaded taking my kids to Baskin-Robbins, because there's nothing worse than a kid who has a product they love, but far too many choices to make.

Most corporations suffer from what I call the Baskin-Robbins syndrome when it comes to innovation - there are far too many options and flavors, and that makes choosing the right innovation activities and investing in the right innovation outcomes exceptionally difficult.

So many innovation flavors

The opportunity and problem with innovation is that it means whatever the speaker wants it to me.  How this plays out in organizations is that one person thinks and says "innovation" and means continuous improvement.  Another says "innovation" and means increased investment in product R&D.  Another says "innovation" and means service models or experience improvement.  Yet another person says "innovation" and means crowdsourcing and employee engagement systems.  And so on.

What happens is that on the surface, all of this activity seems reasonably valuable.  What could possibly be wrong with lots of small experiments all throughout the company on different types of innovation?  In reality, what this leads to is lots of small projects, where many aren't focused on important new opportunities or markets that are vital for the longer term success of the company.  So, while there is a lot of activity, much of it does not address key challenges.

How to choose

This raises another Baskin-Robbins dilemma:  how to choose across highly variable projects with uncertain outcomes.  Many management teams are presented with a diverse range of "innovation" projects and potential outcomes.  Forget about comparing apples to apples - this is often more like comparing apples to anvils - the entire classification and category is different.  These are different asks, for different outcomes, that in many cases don't solve or address interesting problems.

If you as a parent have experienced watching your child try to choose across 31 flavors of ice cream, and the agony that can create, imagine trying to understand and vet requests to fund innovation projects that range from incremental change to existing products to blue sky, disruptive innovation in new markets to creating an internal VC or accelerator.

The most important clarifying question

Perhaps the best, first question you can ask your kids before they go into Baskin Robbins is:  what do you want?  Get them to focus on one flavor or at least one category of flavors, to narrow the selection dilemma.  The same is true for innovation.

Executives should make clear statements about what outcomes they want from innovation, and what they are willing to support and fund.  With these bright lines established, innovation teams can decide to work within those constraints and align to what executives want and expect, and are willing to fund, which makes decision making easier.

This approach allows executives (if they are willing to do so) to align strategy to innovation activities.  It allows them to signal which problems or opportunities are most important.  It signals what kinds of innovation and what outcomes will be important or valuable.

This is kind of like saying to your kids:  you can go to Baskin Robins, but only focus on the chocolate flavors, and only in a bowl.  By setting parameters and narrowing the focus to what is important, the options narrow but the selections and outcomes are more in line with the goals of the business.

When everything is equal

The alternative is that every alternative is equal and has equal merit.  So that a small innovation to improve employee morale is as important as a new R&D project to discover new technologies, or a crowdsourced idea to create a new product.  When presented with these varied options and not clear needs or frameworks, it's no wonder that executive teams simply throw up their hands and refuse to make a decision.

Like it or not, we have to create prioritization frameworks and identify the areas within the business that need the most help, or acceleration, or that have the best chances for new market growth.  Defining where the opportunities lie, and establishing prioritization for projects is what executives should do.

Just like when your parents steer you to the chocolate ice cream and tell you you can't spend more than a $1.  Now, within those constraints, you'll optimize your choices.  But far too often executives leave innovators with the Baskin Robbins effect - all alternatives are good, and none have preference, and there is no clear prioritization model.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:49 PM


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