#536       Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 9          September 2001

Initiating the Innovation Process
by Stephen R. Grossman

Mr. Grossman is President of Double Dominance, Inc. a creative problem-solving company in Maple Shade, NJ (phone 609-779-0702).  He is author of Innovation, Inc. (Wordware Publishing, Plano, TX, 1988).

I’ve been recommending guidelines to help leaders better manage the innovation process.  The two biggest barriers to sustained, meaningful innovation are: a) non-alignment of key decision makers and b) the use of evaluation as a criticizing, rather than creative, task.

The following steps will help create an aligned direction that marshals the critical mass of people needed for the “care and feeding” of new ideas.  It also treats evaluation as a creative exercise by putting a buffer of creative people between the idea generators and key decision makers.  This will cull ideas and make each as great as it can be before it is evaluated by the executive group.

Call for Ideas

A cross-section of individuals are invited to be a team to participate in brainstorming sessions to generate new ideas.  These are employees who have some formal or informal influence and who, in the past, have demonstrated a degree of creative performance.  They are each instructed to bring at least 5 to 10 good ideas to their session, and are encouraged to develop their list by involving as many people as they can prior to the meeting.  Also before the meeting, team members should develop these ideas through so they are presented as strongly as possible. Each creative session, optimally with a trained facilitator, examines the ideas and builds them up, as well as using them as a springboard to create additional ideas.  Aim for several hundred ideas..

Each idea must now undergo a “cleaning up” before the final list is chosen and sent to the executive committee.  Eliminate the absurd, the uninteresting (business as usual), and the redundancies.  Special emphasis should be placed on any idea that evokes a noticeable emotional response.  It doesn’t matter whether the reaction is positive or negative.  (Sometimes the opposite of a terrible idea offers the seeds for a breakthrough.)

The restoration is started with a search for utility.  All the positive aspects of the idea are uncovered with the following prompts:

1.  Assume the idea can be implemented, what does it accomplish?   What benefits does it yield?  Here, it is important to suspend concerns about practicality.

2.  Under what environment might there be a maximum payoff?  (Instead of modifying the idea to make it work, modify the environment in which it operates.)

3.  What are all the factors that make the idea unique?  Why is it different from past suggestions?  Why might it succeed this time when other times it might have failed?  (The single biggest new idea killer-phrase is “the same as…”).

4.  What are the intermediate steps or specific mechanisms that make the idea work?

5.  What general principles are represented in this idea? 

Now choose the favorite 25 to 30 based on the following criteria:

The idea is exciting; it’s a great idea.

It fills a sustainable need better than anything currently available.  (What are potential end-users now doing with the time, money or effort that you want them to invest in your product/service?)

There is a significant bottom-line impact.

It is consistent with the strengths of the business; or those strengths are easy to acquire.

It is relatively easy to develop a working prototype.

It doesn’t violate safety, environmental, or legal concerns.

It is consistent with the cultural value system of the consumer.

There are no obvious problems of scale.

It is specific and easy to visualize; to get a clear picture of its meaning and value.

It doesn’t jeopardize other parts of the business.

Technology is available; though not necessarily in house.

It is proprietary and protectable.

It exemplifies the company’s mission.

It is not important that all these criteria be satisfied for ideas to make the executive list.  At this stage, the ideas merely represent reaction triggers for the decision makers. The most exciting ideas have the best chance of eventually seeing the light of day in the marketplace; therefore, I recommend that they be placed on top of the list.  Avoid premature clustering into one general area; this is the ultimate work of the business executives.  Finally, develop the idea portfolio with a one page summary of each of its 25 to 30 chosen ideas.  The value and meaning of each idea should be clearly presented.

Executive Evaluation

Each member of the executive team should independently place each of the ideas into one of two “intensity” categories:

1.  Something about the idea really interests me.

2.  It doesn’t make my emotional priority list.

These choices should be made at an intuitive rather than an analytical level, as they are not indications of final acceptance or rejection, but merely vague suggestions of where a focus for innovation may eventually be found. 

Next, collect the responses and tabulate, for each idea, the number (“frequency”) of executives who share a given intensity view.  This results in four categories:

Level A—low frequency/high intensity.

Level B—low frequency/low intensity.

Level C - high frequency/high intensity.

Level D - high frequency/low intensity.

Analysis

Level A

This is the only area that has the appropriate input for innovation. These ideas are now analyzed for unifying characteristics.  What makes them stand apart from the others?  The answers are culled into a General Principle Statement intended to guide the new innovation effort.  Even if the ideas that make up this statement are not chosen, the statement will elicit similar (and perhaps more rewarding) ideas.

The ideas, from which the final statement has been induced, are forwarded to the appropriate business units for further evaluation and to the original idea-collecting team as useful feedback in its ongoing mission.  The new general principle is now communicated to each employee.

Level B

Either the executive group is merely paying lip service to the idea of innovation, or there is a profound information gap with employees.  To determine what the precise problem is, the executives should go through a new clustering exercise.  This time, however, they each should cull ideas from the initial portfolio that they truly dislike.  If a high intensity is found, it implies that there is a significant disconnect between the executives and the rest of the organization.  The executives must identify the gap and close it before any attempt at innovation is started. It also may be possible that employees either don’t have sufficient motivation or the necessary skills to generate interesting ideas. Of these two, it is more likely that motivation is missing, and the employees are using this exercise as a means of venting their frustrations..

It is also possible that the company is not interested in innovation at this time, and might better direct their energies towards maintaining the status quo.

Level C

This outcome is highly unlikely.  Why isn’t the company being very innovative right now?  Perhaps there is a recent power shift.  Maybe the mindset of the employees is outdated and they don’t realize how hungry the organization is for new ideas.  In this case, executives should use more critical measures for choosing the best ideas, and act on them immediately.  Words create weight, but actions give luster, and more employees see than weigh.

Level D 

This is the most common outcome.  There is a large diversity of opinion and attitude among the executive staff.  This is the major reason that innovation has not been recently successful.  This difference manifests itself as an inability to implement new ideas, rather than as a dearth of ideas.  The existing vision is probably vague and doesn’t create enough alignment and energy.  Typically, ideas forever remain in the feasibility phase until some new crisis or objective makes them fade into obscurity.

To correct this problem and elevate to Level A, the executive group must determine why there is such a wide divergence.  Each executive may do his or her own cluster analysis, distilling choices to their own vision statements.  These statements provide the initiating point for conflict resolution.  Attempts are made by the executives to upgrade each idea to mitigate differences without compromising the uniqueness of the initial idea. Now, a new clustering may be done with the proviso that at least half the ideas that each executive selects were initially championed by another executive. They must get to Level A, because that is what’s required to achieve seeds of a vision strong and sustaining enough to catalyze innovation.

From my experience dealing with a variety of businesses, this process not only allows the company to align and focus, but serves as a diagnostic, showing precisely what may be missing in their quest for innovation. It clearly defines specific remediation strategies that are required to leverage the creative—and at times dormant—powers of the workforce.

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