Innovation can take many forms. Whether innovation involves creating a new consumer product, adopting an innovative business model, or your innovation is simply a new way of doing business, innovations fuel competitive advantage for your organization that helps you stand out to consumers and leads to long-term survival. Innovation also helps build a stronger economy that makes things better for everyone. And, speaking of making things better for everyone, innovations help consumers find better solutions to the problems they face. But, creating innovations is hard, involving ideation, which involves a type of fuzzy thinking that isn’t the forte of most businesses. Today, we’ll discuss how to do better ideation that results in innovative products.
But, where do those innovations come from? Occasionally, innovation comes from a moment of pure inspiration like the little light bulb above a character’s head in a comic strip. More likely, innovations come from processes (and organizations) that foster ideation – that fuzzy front end where ideas form. Companies that succeed in developing new products are among the most valuable companies in the world, including Apple, Google (Alphabet), Microsoft, IBM, and Salesforce.
The innovation process
Innovation proceeds through a series of steps that ensure viable products reach the market. At each step in the process, ideas are winnowed down so that, in the end, only a few or even a single idea reaches the market. In some cases, the firm goes back to the ideation stage without developing any new marketable products. Here are the steps commonly involved in the process (in order):
- Ideation involves a creative process to develop the beginnings of new products. Organizations with successful ideation programs encourage all employees to think about ideas unconstrained by practicality or fit between the idea and the firm. We call this the fuzzy front end of the innovation process. Below you can see some tools used early in the ideation process and the way ideas are filtered before moving on to the next stage in the process. Thus, ideation involves a relatively undisciplined stage involving generating ideas and idea screening, designed to filter ideas for organizational fit and potential. Testing the concept with prospective consumers might form part of this process, although you must consider that consumers aren’t in a great position to envision a radically new product that doesn’t exist so this part of ideation might require some advanced idea development.
- Business analysis takes the few ideas that make it through ideation to make a business case for further development. Here, businesses move into a more traditional way of thinking where costs are estimated, market potential evaluated, and potential profits offered by the new product.
- Prototype development involves creating a working version of the idea so you can test it with prospective buyers and develop more accurate estimates of costs and selling price.
- Marketing strategy development involves creating everything necessary to market the product including benefit statements, advertising assets, and plans for advertising channels.
- Commercialization involves actually implementing your marketing plan.
Today, we’ll focus on ideation as this is the first critical step in developing a successful innovation.
Generating ideas is the most critical step in innovation
Companies that develop a constant stream of innovations, usually have ideation down to a science since a superior ideation process is critical for developing innovations. But, ideation isn’t something you implement because you see a need for a new product. It’s an ongoing process that encourages ideas and offers a supportive infrastructure that allows ideas to flourish. For instance, Google designs its offices with comfortable seating groupings arranged throughout the building and requires a nutrition center offering a variety of drinks and food within a few feet of each workstation. This office layout not only reinforces the value placed on employees that results in higher retention and eases hiring but it encourages the types of conversations that generate ideas.
Ideation not only requires a corporate culture supportive of new ideas but also tangible support to help those ideas flourish. For instance, 3M encourages innovation by providing funds, release time from work, and profit sharing which means employees involved in developing innovations enjoy a large share in the profits from their invention. Organizations with a bureaucratic organizational structure that defines who is involved in innovation and sets up a restrictive process for bringing innovations to market, see much less innovation and face the ultimate obsolescence of their existing product lines over time.
To help generate more ideas, here are some brainstorming strategies from IDEO, a leader in innovation management:
1. Sharpen the focus
Start with a well-honed statement of the problem at hand. Edgy is better than fuzzy. The best topic statements focus outward on a specific customer need or service enhancement rather than inward on some organizational goal. But, don’t be too focused on extending existing product lines but on radically new products as the return for these products is much greater, despite the increased risk. And, accept that ideas aren’t failures when they don’t work out. The story of Post-it Notes shows how yesterday’s product failure (a very weak glue) can generate huge profits if you rethink how to use the idea in another way.
2. Write playful rules
Ideo’s primary brainstorming rules are simple: “Defer judgment” and “One conversation at a time.” The firm believes in its rules so strongly that they’re stenciled in 8-inch letters on conference room walls. “If I’m the facilitator and somebody starts a critique or people start talking, I can enforce the rules without making it feel personal,” Kelley says. Other rules include, “Go for quantity,” “Be visual,” and “Encourage wild ideas.”
Recognize there are NO bad ideas at this stage in the process. And, don’t be too focused on whether you can figure out a way to do something but on whether it should be done. For instance, I facilitated a brainstorming session with my graduate students and one group developed the idea of a women’s shoe that transformed between a high-heeled version and a flat version. While the practicality of a shoe like that wasn’t great, it generated an idea that did become a successful reality, selling ballet-type slippers in a vending machine at clubs so women could switch to more comfortable footwear.
3. Number your ideas
“This rule seems counterintuitive — the opposite of creativity,” Kelley says. “But numbered lists create goals to motivate participants. You can say, ‘Let’s try to get to 100 ideas.’ Also, lists provide a reference point if you want to jump back and forth between ideas.”
4. Build and jump
Most brainstorming sessions follow a power curve: They start out slowly, build to a crescendo, and then start to plateau. The best facilitators nurture the conversation in its early stages, step out of the way as the ideas start to flow, and then jump in again when energy starts to peter out.
“We go for two things in a brainstorm: fluency and flexibility,” Kelley says. “Fluency is a very rapid flow of ideas, so there’s never more than a moment of silence. Flexibility is approaching the same idea from different viewpoints.”
Encourage everyone to participate and shut up nay-sayers at this stage in the process. Ensure powerful members don’t dominate or that their underlings defer to them instead of coming up with unrelated ideas.
5. Make the space remember
Good facilitators should also write ideas down on an accessible surface, such as a whiteboard or large notes taped to the wall. I favor setting up smaller groups with a whiteboard to let them come up with ideas on their own. Ideo used to hold its brainstorms in rooms wallpapered with whiteboards or butcher paper. Lately, however, the group has started using easel-sized Post-it notes. “When the facilitator tries to pull together all the ideas after the session,” Kelley says, “she can stack up nice, tidy rectangular things instead of spreading butcher paper all the way down the hall.”
The core of IDEO innovation lies in its group brainstorming sessions operated in a non-threatening way that encourages innovative ideas. A key element implicit in IDEO is the composition of the group — which should include positive people from various backgrounds not just engineers or managers assigned the task of developing new ideas. Their role and skillset come into play later in the process. To avoid group think, brainstorming sessions should vary participants.
But, what if you’re not working for a large organization? Here are some suggestions for innovation and ideation in smaller organizations:
- Join or form a group of other folks interested in your industry to share ideas. A document should outline ownership of ideas so you avoid the problem Mark Zuckerberg had with others claiming ownership of Facebook.
- Crowdsource innovations from customers or other interested consumers. Some of the best ideas come from those who will use the innovation. For instance, the minivan is based on a concept derived directly from consumers’ reflections on their transportation needs.
- Slow down and smell the roses. OK, they don’t have to be roses, but you should set aside time from your busy day for playful reflection such as facilitated by the layout of Google offices. Sure, it’s important to be very strategic, but a certain playfulness (and daydreaming) promotes innovation.
- Take a class. Not something related to your work (although I strongly encourage lifelong learning), but something fun. Maybe a photography class or a cooking class. Travel and experience different cultures. Just keep your mind open to see things from a new perspective.
- Don’t be afraid to share ideas. Despite notions that the idea is the key to innovation, it’s often the commercialization that’s the biggest hurdle, not idea generation. Look at Xerox. They developed the interface Steve Jobs later incorporated into Apple computers — the graphical interface — but were never able to make any money from it. They also transferred intellectual property to a couple of employees who later built Adobe from their ideas.
- By the same token, be careful who you discuss innovative ideas with. Not because they might steal them, but because they can be negative about any idea and discourage you from pursuing something remarkable. Accountants and attorneys (except for patent attorneys) tend to be very risk-averse, so avoid discussing ideas with them until you’ve vetted the idea with business people.
My own recommendations are:
- to keep a notebook close at hand ALL THE TIME (or a small tape recorder). Many folks keep one next to their bed as great ideas often come at the moment just before you go to sleep or immediately upon waking.
- Read, listen, network — the more you’re exposed to news, gossip, or other bits of information, the more you’ll be tuned in to what others are thinking. I get my best ideas from All Things Considered on NPR as I’m fighting traffic home every evening. The key here is to get out of your comfort zone.
- There’s no such thing as a bad idea. People try to begin analysis during a brainstorming session. This is deadly to the creative process. All ideas should be considered. The next step is the point where analysis comes in.
Creating an organizational culture that promotes ideation allows a business to stay focused on the future and allows it to adapt to changes that make it profitable in the future. Did you know that 52% of the businesses on the Fortune 500 in 2000 aren’t around today? By the same token, many of today’s most profitable businesses didn’t exist 10 years ago. Without constant innovation, your company might be the next one to disappear into history.
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