Innovation Newsletter from OVO
Refining or Deconstructing ideas
The innovation gauntlet
If you’ll stop to consider the path that many ideas follow in your organization, and the trials and tribulations of idea development and commercialization, you’ll soon agree that for many firms, ideas run what can only be described as an innovation gauntlet.
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a gauntlet, let me illuminate you. A gauntlet was used to punish soldiers who were guilty of cowardice or thievery up until the end of the 19th Century. Prisoners and enemy soldiers were made to run through two lines of soldiers who whipped, beat or struck the individuals running the gauntlet. Often, if you made it through alive, all debts were erased. On the other hand, many never made it through.
At first, comparing an innovation process to a gauntlet may seem a bit extreme. After all, the innovation path and process in an organization is simply there to validate the best ideas and to improve them, not to punish the ideas or restrict them, right?
A deeper investigation of many innovation processes and idea management methods may encourage you to reconsider this thinking. After all, as an idea moves through these systems and processes, people work to mold and trim ideas to their specifications and needs. Rough edges are filed away. Ideas are constrained by existing products or services. Many different teams with diverse goals and reward structures impact the idea. Suddenly, at the end of the process, an idea that seemed very valuable, that would radically change the status quo in a business, is now a safe, acceptable, me-too product. That idea, while it hasn’t “died”, has definitely been through the gauntlet.
The deciding factors
Clearly, the concept behind an innovation process isn’t to punish the idea, but hopefully to improve the idea and to ensure the firm can commercialize it. But bad outcomes are possible with even the best intents. That’s because while the idea was originally generated to solve a customer need or address an emerging business opportunity, the rest of the innovation process evaluates the idea based on existing rules, existing regulations, existing products and existing funding mechanisms. These existing features and attributes whittle away at the idea, “improving” it and ensure it fits within the existing internal frameworks, ignoring the fact that the idea was intended to solve a customer or market need that may, or may not, care about internal politics, funding or decision making.
Starting with the end in mind
Clearly, the firm must be able to commercialize the idea, but the innovation process should take as its first goal that ANY suggested change is considered with the customer need or market opportunity in mind. Does the suggested edit, modification or change improve the idea and ensure the idea can achieve its original value proposition? As decisions are made about internal barriers, constraints and conditions, ideas get watered down. Instead, what we should be considering is how to get the new product or service that achieves the original goals and expectations of the customer as completely and in its entirety as possible.
How to keep a radical idea radical
There are several ways to ensure an interesting, radical idea stays true to its original meaning. None are easy, but the outcome is very important.
First, you can nominate an idea champion. This is a person who actively supports the idea through the entire idea management process. He or she acts as a coach for the idea and a staunch supporter for the original intent of the idea, and fights to retain the original intent of the idea. An idea champion faces two significant challenges. First, as the defender of the idea he or she can become blind to real problems or challenges the idea presents. Second, few people have the skills or mental fortitude to play this role more than a few times.
Next, you can require that any change to idea must be documented. In the documentation it must be demonstrated why the change is necessary and that the change doesn’t impact the ability to produce the original intent of the idea. If every team is held accountable to achieve the idea as close to its original concept as possible, then they will reconsider how they evaluate and implement ideas.
Third, you can appoint an executive sponsor for an idea whose responsibilities are to remove roadblocks to the commercialization of the idea in its truest original form. When the idea encounters teams, actions or processes which seek to confine or limits its appeal, the executive can mediate between existing expectations and the best outcome for the idea. A sponsor who hopes to implement the idea in his or her product or service area has a lot riding on the beneficial and rapid implementation of the idea, so this approach is typically the best one.
More refining, less gauntlet
Over time, the best analogy for an innovation process should be “refining” – that is, taking out the dross and leaving an even better, even more valuable idea behind. The gauntlet seeks to restrict or minimize the idea. Refining seeks to burnish and improve the idea, to make it even better than it was originally. That’s a concept worth pursuing.
Here’s a simple question you can ask yourself about your innovation process: the longer ideas stay in our innovation process, the more ______ they become. Ideally, your firm fills the blank with words like “more valuable” rather than “more incremental”.
Creating an innovation “standard”
Imagine, if you will, that each state in the United States had its own electricity “standard”. You’d need a different plug, adapter or perhaps an entirely different device from state to state. That would make it more likely that electronics firms would focus only on large states, or that some states might have their “own” electrical appliance firms that only worked to their standards. This would mean that options would be limited, and products would be expensive. If this sounds a bit like traveling in Europe, well, you get the point.
Fortunately for us, most large industries eventually coalesce around a standard – the IBM PC standard for personal computers, or the TCP/IP standard for data transmission over the internet, or gasoline burning engines in cars. Standards mean that the products can be scaled up and firms are free to base their designs on a common platform and differentiate in other ways. Consumers know that products that follow the standard are relatively transferable and can be quickly adopted and used effectively anywhere.
So the question we started asking ourselves is: if innovation is so important, why is the approach still so fragmented? Why does innovation lack a common approach? A standard? And without a standard, is innovation still a cottage industry?
Why a standard would matter
We believe that innovation still has a significant amount of mystique attached to it. There’s several reasons for the mystique. First, there are a number of competing approaches, pushed by different factions. All of the methods you read about are viable and appropriate based on certain needs and situations, but many of the backers of the methods or approaches argue that their approach is a cure-all for all innovation needs. Second, innovation and its outcomes are tied to the ability of the teams, and the depth of their engagement and sponsorship, at least as much as to any method, so its unclear how much emphasis to place on the method and how much on other factors. Third, innovation is notoriously difficult to measure, and it is hard to ascribe much weight to any input – consultants, methods, teams, circumstances, serendipity.
We believe a collaborative, transparent reference model would solve a lot of these problems. First, such a model doesn’t remove the value proposition of any innovation tool or method – those tools or methods could use the reference model as a benchmark and demonstrate the rationale for the differences between them. Second, a transparent reference model removes a lot of the mystery about different approaches and provides one common starting point for any innovation team. Third, a common starting point ensures that more people can gain more experience in a common approach, thus ensuring far more people with experience in a broad innovation set. These factors and more would accelerate the adoption of innovation by more corporations, as the uncertainty and risk falls away, and creates more opportunity for more innovation work, thus benefiting everyone involved in the definition of the reference model.
Collaborative Innovation Reference Framework
To that end, Paul Hobcraft of Agility Innovation and Jeffrey Phillips at OVO Innovation have defined a model we call the Collaborative Innovation Reference Framework. It is our goal to develop this model collaboratively and out in the open. Working with innovation practitioners who are willing to help augment and extend the model, we seek to create a collaborative reference framework for innovation that any firm can adopt, and adapt.
The model is in three parts:
Each of the words in the description matter.
From our experience it is easy to see that many firms attempt to add innovation as a “layer” on existing business architecture, without fully understanding the many subtle layers and interactions. In this segment of the model we “peel” the onion to look at the impact of innovation on strategy, people and processes. In this model we conclude by defining a reference framework based on core capabilities.
Based on the work done “peeling the onion” we identify five “areas” of the business that must be considered for innovation to succeed:
- Strategic Context
- Trajectories, Discoveries and Insight
- Systematic Innovation Process
- Go To Market Capabilities
- Enabling and Scalable Infrastructure
Strategic context is relatively self-explanatory – what impact will innovation have on your strategies, management imperatives and communications?
Trajectories, Discovery and Insight examines the so-called “front end” of innovation. How does your organization evaluate trends and understand the unfolding opportunities and threats? How does it gather customer insight and assess that insight to identify unmet or unarticulated needs?
Systematic Innovation Process examines the defined workflow that helps your team generate, evaluate and manage ideas effectively. This includes the processes necessary and the people who support and sustain the process.
Go To Market capabilities examines how you convert ideas into new products and how you launch new products in the market.
Enabling and Scalable Infrastructure examines the skills, processes, knowledge, software and other “infrastructure” you need in order to sustain innovation activities and scale the activities to include more people and a greater breadth of ideas.
In any innovation effort your team must consider the strengths, capabilities, experiences and readiness in each of these five factors in order to innovate successfully.
The final component of the model uses the Reference Framework and evaluates a number of innovation “types” or approaches in the context of the reference framework. For example we examine:
- Business Model Innovation
- Open Innovation
- Needs-based Innovation
- Service/Experience Innovation
- and others
Within the context of the reference model, to identify which of the five capabilities or focus areas is most important when innovating using each “type”.
It’s clear that developing a “standard” innovation method or model is difficult if not impossible, but it is also clear that any industry that subscribes to standards, or any effort that aligns to standards is more broadly successful than those that can’t define a standard or refuse to agree on one.
Whether you agree with the approach we’ve established or not, we ask for your involvement, engagement, comments, suggestions and extensions. You can get involved by reviewing the suggested models, providing your comments and suggestions, participating on our wiki site.
In return we agree to republish the model on a regular basis incorporating the ideas and suggestions of others, and you are welcome to use the model within the constraints of the creative commons license attached.