The innovation process, in the business context, is a structured action that is remarkably easy to implement. It begins with a problem and ends with profit. As such, it is the ideal business process. So it is remarkable that so few businesses have actually implemented this structured innovation process. Fortunately, all you have to do is read this and implement it in your firm!
Step by Step
1. Begin with a problem
The innovation process starts with a problem or possibly a goal. However, the fact that the business has not already achieved the goal might be considered a problem. So, we can safely say the process begins with a problem. All businesses have problems. Sales could be better, products could be better, processes could be more efficient, costs could be reduced and so on.
2. Convert the problem into a challenge
Once a problem has been identified, it needs to be converted into a challenge. A challenge is a short, terse question that invites creative solutions. Example challenges include: “In what ways might we improve product X?” and “How might we reduce wastage in our manufacturing process?” A challenge may also be in the form of a call to action: “Sketch design ideas for product X” or “Use building blocks to demonstrate ways in which we might combine processes in manufacturing.” Formulating a good challenge that addresses your problem is critical to the innovation process. If your challenge does not properly address the underlying problem, you may get a lot of ideas — but they won’t solve your problem and therefore are unlikely to become innovations!
3. Challenge colleagues to suggest creative solutions
Once you have a terrific innovation challenge, you need to communicate it to colleagues — or others such as business partners, customers or even the public — so that they can generate ideas. How you communicate depends on the method of idea generation you will use for each instance of the innovation process.
4. Collaborative idea generation
Idea generation might be in the form of a brainstorming activity, through the use of real idea management software (one like our Jenni, which uses ideas campaigns based around innovation challenges) or a team may be assigned to devise and develop ideas. You could even generate ideas yourself, but as a general rule, diverse teams generate more creative (both in terms of quantity and quality) than individuals — at least in the right circumstances.
Whatever method of idea generation you use, it should ideally be in a collaborative environment in which people can work together to develop ideas. Ideally, there should be no criticism, censorship or destruction of ideas during this phase. You want to encourage people to think creatively and be unafraid to suggest ideas. Early criticism of any kind will only make people reluctant to share ideas, especially their most outlandishly creative ideas (in other words, the best ideas), for fear of also being criticized.
Note: lots of people think that idea generation is the most important element of the innovation process. It’s not. A great idea, unimplemented, is worthless to business. Nevertheless, you do need ideas to keep the process going and creating an environment for generating creative ideas means that the resulting innovations will be more.. innovative!
5. Combine and evaluate ideas
With lots of ideas in the pot, the next step is to combine similar ideas into idea clusters or big ideas. Each idea cluster can be processed as a single idea, thus making the next steps of the process more efficient.
This done, you can then evaluate ideas with an evaluation matrix in which promising ideas are compared to relevant business criteria. The better the idea meets each criterion, the higher its score. In the end, those ideas with the highest evaluation scores are taken to the next step.
Note: evaluators tend to be overly critical of ideas. Hence it is important to ask them not only what does not work with an idea, but also to ask them how these problems might be dealt with in order to improve the idea.
6. Develop ideas
How you develop ideas depends on the innovation challenge and the kind of ideas generated. New product ideas might be developed into prototypes. Process efficiency ideas may be modeled. Marketing ideas may be evaluated in consumer surveys and so on. The purpose of developing ideas is to test them in the business environment and, if no insoluble problems are discovered, prepare them for implementation.
In the case of highly creative ideas, it is usually best to create a prototype if at all possible. A prototype makes it easier to sell a radical idea to managers, committees and other dingalings who will be tempted to kill it off.
7. Implement ideas
Finally, you are now ready to manufacture your new product, restructure your processes or do whatever is necessary to turn the evaluated and developed ideas into implementations that generate value for the organization. It is at this step that creative ideas grow up and become innovations.
If ideas are radically different to business as usual or if they require substantial investment, it is wise to implement them with a series of milestones along the way. This enables you to review the implementation of the idea in order to ensure it is either delivering value or retains the potential to deliver value at a future milestone. Although many organizations today make it difficult to implement radical ideas, once those ideas are launched as projects, the responsible teams are often remarkably reluctant to stop the implementation for fear of reprisals, losses or other consequences. You need to minimize those consequences so under-performing ideas can be killed and resources can rapidly be reinvested in promising new ideas.
A Scalable, Repeatable and Effective Process
There are three terrific qualities of the innovation process. Firstly, it is scalable. An individual freelancer can use it to innovate in her business, small teams can use it for innovative projects, business units and even entire companies can use it. Although, with large groups, specialized idea management software is needed to capture and facilitate the processing of the ideas efficiently.
Secondly, the process is repeatable. A company can have numerous instances of the innovation process in action at all times. A team leader can launch new challenges once the ideas from old challenges have been implemented (or even sooner in some instances).
Thirdly, the process is effective. It is based on a combination of Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and standard business processes. It has been proven again and again. Indeed, it should be clear that the innovation process enables you to align innovation with strategy, focus creative thinking on current business needs and combine multiple ideas in order to develop comprehensive solutions to all kinds of business problems.
And, as we stated in the beginning, it is a simple process; one that can readily be implemented in most companies. Although, you will also need to have something of a culture of innovation in place in your firm in order for the process to work. If new ideas are routinely criticized from conception and committees are so risk adverse they are afraid to cross the street (as is typically the case without a culture of innovation), there is little hope for the innovation process.
On the other hand, if new ideas are always welcome, the CEO really believes in innovation (rather than just makes bland statements about it) and the company is willing to invest resources not only in innovation, but also the implementation of radical ideas, the innovation process will perform wonderfully!
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of jpb.com, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.jpb.com/