The idea(s) and the funnel
A particularly interesting discussion on idea management was opened (but not closed) during the annual Continuous Innovation Network Conference and related workshops. Since the purpose of the Conference is to gather academics and practitioners, those of us who don’t read papers on a regular basis had the chance to catch up with the latest and greatest. For the rest, I assume, it was a useful exercise anyway as measuring innovation is never a plain black and white debate.
So, researchers says you need solid knowledge to approach innovation but innovation specialists swear you have to be playful instead - a true clash of the titans! An efficient and accountable, therefore superior stage-gate process must be measurable and most often compares the incoming and the outgoing (volumes). However, involving experts late in the process or directly at the go/no go evaluation point involves the risk that potentially good but abstract ideas are junked as not feasible, difficult to implement or openly crazy. If you are not completely confused by now, reputable case studies have also found that expertise is essential when it comes to evaluating ideas, but even there and then you will find a certain level of ambiguity when applying criteria based filters. An alternative to that would be a holistic approach including, well, a healthy dose of gut feeling, or if you prefer to call it intuition.
Hint: the likes of Apple are usually cited among those continuously and successfully doing that.
So there we come to the innovation funnel - the angel and devil to idea management newbies. The entire focus of the funnel is to sift ideas and get rid of the chaff. However not all funnels function the same way and it’s not so much of a butchers’ business anyway. A carefully selected audience of idea submitters, development experts and evaluators is usually a great start. Tetra Pak, the Swedish packaging and processing solutions provider, had major issues in their production line because a machine kept breaking at a certain point in the cycle. To resolve the problem and redesign the product so it wouldn’t cause havoc in the factories they brought together a team of engineers, designers, technicians and an origami expert. They all had unique expertise and different ideas on how to approach the problem. Speaking about efficiency and novelty, four days later an idea was sent to prototyping…
Your output is as good as your input. One of the fundamental and most renowned innovation principles states: crap in = crap out.
It’s fair to say generating lots and lots of ideas is easy but coming up with 20 good original ones - not so much. Now, try with 10 original ideas that are also good strategic fit and in line with your company’s brand values - I know! This is also one good reason to involve experts and senior management as early as possible. The former as part of the brainstorming and the latter as an authority to match the ideas against strategy. When this mixture is brewing you could have a funnel as powerful as a rocket. The quality filters and evaluations targeting improvements work best when the ideas, not the process, are in the focus. Truth of the matter, all the work in the funnel is essentially development work done in one or many stages. Some ideas will be picked up, elaborated on and promoted; others will be less popular but will remain inside the funnel, just at a latent phase. No innovation opportunity is lost when the ideas exist in one place as this is in fact an excellent incubator for inspiration. The innovation workflow is just one side of a multidimensional structure that is innovation at your organisation. In a best-case scenario the whole admin part is automated (the funnel) and everyone is busy with the really important pieces. If admin takes over what should be the creative pieces of a challenge we are most likely witnessing idea management in a neat but completely not groundbreaking library model.