All of us agree that innovation is very essential for organizational growth and success. But the question arises: How should we innovate? Many organisations do it by accident. For instance, they hope someone will come up with an idea for a product or service so they could capitalise on it. At a time when companies need to generate more ideas than ever before and turn those into viable products and services before competition can catch up, the accidental approach is no longer enough. Business needs a sustainable and repeatable approach to creativity and innovation.
We can consider a step by step process that can improve a company’s idea management process and help to bring better products and services to market more quickly and effectively.
Step 1: Generate good ideas: We may have plenty of ideas but our challenge is to evaluate and select. The number and variety of ideas overwhelm companies because they start with an ill-defined focus. The first step of successful innovation is better not to have more ideas. To generate ideas, many organisations use brainstorming techniques. For brainstorming to be successful, its focus needs to be sharp enough to exclude extraneous ideas but adequately wide to allow wild ones that might be required to solve the problem in a unique way. A useful approach is identifying and nurturing so-called lead users i.e. people who are at the fore-front of a trend and have created a solution to a need they recognized. A framework for helping leaders and their teams generating ideas can be shown as:
a. Separate idea generation from idea evaluation: These are two different tasks calling for different kinds of thinking. When these two processes get mixed up, poor decisions are made. In a meeting, ideas are often thrown out and judged simultaneously. As a result, people prematurely discard good options before they are fully realized.
b. Aim for quantity: During the idea-generation stage, we should aim for quantity. It is much better to have a menu of 10 meals to choose than from three. This is because having more choices increases the likelihood of uncovering a breakthrough idea. Research shows that the most innovative ideas surface only after an extended period of idea generation. It also increases learning because every new idea is an opportunity to discover what will or will not work. Moreover, it inhibits a natural tendency to pick up the first idea that sounds implemental.
c. Seek connections: Leaders should encourage the team to reach for associations between ideas on the table and other contexts. “Piggybacking” off other ideas and comments has several benefits, including increasing the likelihood of obtaining unusual responses and solutions, encouraging flexible thinking, helping in the elaboration on initial ideas and finally, stimulating the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Invest at least as much time in assessing and selecting ideas as you did generating them. Balance intuition (which helps determine the most promising ideas) with critical analysis (which ensures that you objectively test and refine your subjective insights) to make certain that the best alternatives rather than the most expedient ones are selected and then developed.
Step 2: Capture ideas: The capture phase of innovation is the point where many organizations stumble. Few firms have organisation-wide idea management systems. Instead firms develop spreadsheets, databases and other mechanisms on a team-by-team basis, leading to inefficiency and wastage of great ideas. For example, the managers of a particular division of a company visited an idea generation forum and returned with several ideas they thought had merits; including one that would vastly benefit another division in their organisation. Unfortunately, after returning from the brainstorming session, the manager in charge put the rolled up paper with the ideas on it in the corner of his office and there it remained. While those ideas were captured, they were not shared or incubated to become revenue-drivers. Initial idea concepts need discussion, interaction and incubation.
Step 3: Evaluate ideas: Now that you have generated focused ideas and captured them in a collaborative system, the next step is using a transparent, consistent mechanism to evaluate them. Evaluation criteria should be appropriate to the idea category, line of business, type of innovation and/or the market you intend to serve. For example, pharmaceutical companies generally look at intellectual property protection and risk before pursuing research while commercial lawn equipment manufacturers check technical feasibility and market competition. Your goal is to evaluate ideas to determine their viability. Transparency is important. Contributors need to know how ideas will be evaluated and why an idea is accepted or rejected; otherwise they will be less likely to contribute in future. Another benefit of a consistent evaluation system is that it provides documentation for innovation decisions, thereby allowing a team to gather
and share information about both successful and unsuccessful suggestions.
Step 4: Use prototypes: Customers have difficulty defining requirements for products or services they have not seen. But when you present an example, they will be able to provide feedback. It is more important to create a simulation of the final product and let the customer interact with it as quickly as possible as to pursue a traditional requirements, definition approach. Ideas become more powerful and meaningful by use of prototypes.
Creating a sustainable business process requires an easily understood set of steps or phases. By following this four-step approach and integrating it with the processes and systems within your organisation, you can begin to manage innovation in the same manner that you manage your other critical business functions. This approach will shorten the cycle time from idea to product or service, improve idea evaluation and analysis and it will also increase your return on innovation investment.
Prof. Jharna Lulla
Faculty Economics and Placement Officer
International School of Management Excellence
The author of the article is Prof. Jharna Lulla, faculty at International School of Management Excellence, Navi Mumbai. She has done her Masters in Economics and PGDM. She has extensive experience in Industry before moving to academics. Prof. Jharna is currently writing a book on Macro Economics and is a prolific writer in journals and magazines.