Design Your Innovation System Backwards to Move Forward
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Many organisational innovation processes are designed in a step by step fashion from beginning to end; from idea to implementation and all the steps in between. Unfortunately, in practice, these processes tend to break down somewhere after idea generation, leaving innovation managers with loads of unimplemented ideas and, often, colleagues who are disappointed that their ideas never went anywhere. A better way to design your innovation process is to start with the end of the process and work your way to the beginning. This makes it far more likely ideas will be relevant and implemented. Here's how to do it.
The end of your innovation process is not implemented ideas. Rather it is your goal. What do you hope to achieve through innovation? Your goal should be aligned with the strategic vision of your company. If your company's strategic vision is to make cutting edge running shoes that incorporate information technology, then the focus of your innovation needs to be to stay on that cutting edge using IT. You need to push people to have ideas about new uses of IT and shoes, new designs and so on. That is the primary goal of your innovation.
There may also be secondary goals related to your primary goal. In this example, those goals might include improving quality control in the production process; improve efficiency in production and logistics; and better marketing. These secondary goals normally help you do a better job of achieving your primary goal.
Knowing your goal, the next step is determining the decision making process. Who decides which projects go forward and which are crumpled up and thrown in the rubbish bin? How many approval steps are there? How are decisions made. There is doubtless a process for implementing innovative projects in your company, even if you do not have an innovation initiative in place. However, this process may need a bit of reorganising if you really want to innovate. Too many approval steps provide too many opportunities for innovative projects to be killed. Of course there are many good reasons to kill projects. A new technology, that has the side effect of running shoes to bursting into flames, is definitely worth killing! But there are also all kinds of bad reasons for killing projects. A manager on an approval committee who is in a bad mood might reject an idea because she dislikes everything that day. Reducing the number of people who can kill a project substantially increases the likelihood the project is allowed to live.
I hope you are in a position to make changes to the decision making process, or at least you can make recommendations will be taken seriously. If so, look for ways to streamline the process, particularly if there are a lot of hurdles to getting projects approved. You should also look for ways to standardise the approval process. If people with ideas understand the decision making process, they can adopt their ideas accordingly.
You might also consider creating a special innovation budget and approval process for super-creative ideas with potential. This process should be designed for easy approval for further development, but it should also include strict milestones that projects must meet in order to continue. By separating the budget for super-creative idea projects from the main project budget, you effectively remove financial risk, thus reassuring risk obsessed managers. Nevertheless, you also provide a safe space for projects that could become hugely profitable innovations.
Of course, you might not be in the position to change decision making processes. If this is the case, you need to understand the decision making process and use that understanding to design a suitable process to decision making as we shall see.
How do decision makers like their ideas packaged? Do they prefer business cases? Prototypes? PowerPoint presentations with colourful graphs? Incidentally, one of the great things I have discovered about presentations with colourful graphs is that your audience does not care what the colourful graphs are meant to convey, but they will be impressed that you have the colourful graphs. So, if you just have a set of colourful graphs, you can use them again and again even if they are not relevant to your presentation.
Most likely, different kinds of ideas have to be packaged differently for different decision makers. So, it is important to know how various decision makers like their ideas packaged so you can use this in your innovation process. After all, if the CEO likes prototypes, there is no point in presenting her with a business case. She will only tell you to build a prototype.
Unless your organisation is a small one, there will probably be some kind of idea evaluation before you package ideas and send them to decision makers. If so, you need to be sure that the criteria the evaluators use are in line with the criteria that the decision makers will use. If decision makers are deeply concerned about brand identity, this should be a critical criteria in the approval process. The more closely your evaluators' thinking parallels decision maker thinking, the more likely it is that ideas will get the go ahead from above.
Think also about evaluation resources. Who will evaluate ideas? How many experts can you call upon? What are their time constraints? Is it possible to bring in outsiders to evaluate ideas? This is important. A lot of ideation activities such − as crowdsourcing, idea management and brainstorms − are based on generating large numbers of ideas. Their evaluation will require a lot of expert time. If you do not have the resources, you need to know that.
As noted, if your evaluation resources are limited, do not bother with ideation methods that capture lots of ideas. You will not be able to evaluate your ideas and that will only lead to stagnation and disappointment as people submit ideas to no avail. Moreover, in my experience, brainstorms and suggestion schemes are not very good for developing big, exciting ideas; they are more suited to incremental improvement idea collection and should be treated as such.
Instead, organise activities that will lead to developed ideas that fit the goals, will be approved by decision makers, can be packaged appropriately and will be evaluated positively. If decision makers like prototypes, then invite teams to build rudimentary prototypes out of any suitable materials, whether crafts, wooden building blocks or Lego bricks.
If decision makers prefer business cases, that creatively build up business cases. While you do so, bear in mind the evaluation criteria, which are in line with the decision making criteria. See these not as hurdles, but creative challenges.
You may feel that all these restrictions will restrict creativity. If so, you are wrong. By establishing boundaries, your creative people will be better able to focus and exploit their creativity. Compare these two challenges:
- Design a chair.
- Design a rustic style chair suitable for eating in small kitchens.
The second challenge is actually easier, is it not? Far from being constricting, those boundaries give your creativity something to start with. You can also be more confident that your suggestion will be approved and that confidence can only help creativity. That is important. If people know their ideas have a realistic chance of being implemented, they are more confident in their creativity and more willing to invest time, energy and creative thought in developing ideas; they will push their thinking further rather than reign it in.
Knowing what kind of ideas you need, you can also design research activities. The company making cutting edge running shoes incorporating IT, would obviously benefit by watching people running − and not just athletes. They could also watch joggers in parks and children playing. They could talk to athletes and runners to find out what they like and dislike about their current shoes. They could look at related products, like Fitbit and exercise apps for mobile telephones. The could attend IT exhibitions to see what new technologies are coming into the market.
These activities help your creative thinkers better understand customer needs and inspire them to think in new ways about technology, customers and running.
Start from the End
Clearly, if you design your innovation process backwards, you are far more likely to design a process that really leads to innovation rather than one that stops not long after idea collection. You can design activities that do not merely encourage ideas, but enable your creative thinkers to develop sophisticated ideas and package them in ways that make it likely they will be implemented. Moreover, your team will know what kind of ideas are likely to be approved and which ideas are likely to be rejected and can focus their energies on the former.
The result is viable, well-developed innovative projects that senior managers are likely to approve. What more could you ask for in an innovation system?
Oh, and if you already have an innovation system that is not working, I suggest you learn from your failure, scrap it and design a new system backwards.
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