Getting Innovation Backwards

Getting Innovation BackwardsSo I had lunch today with a friend who described another friend’s innovation approach.  It boiled down to “lets go generate a lot of ideas”.  The theory being that once they had a lot of ideas they’d find a valuable one that would be important and relevant.  This approach always reminds me of the story of the little girl digging in the horse barn.  Her father spots her and asks “why are you digging in that pile of horse manure?” (PG for mixed audiences).  Her response?  If there is all this manure here, there must be a pony in here too.  Corporate innovators are often like the little girl, digging in a manure pile of ideas, convinced there’s a pony there somewhere.

Far, far too many organizations, when given the chance to innovate, rush out to generate a bunch of ideas.  There are several reasons they do this:

1. They are familiar with idea generation

2. It feels like they’ve accomplished something – a list of ideas

3. They now have a pile of stuff to wade through

4. They’ve been told that generating lots of ideas is important (and in context, it is)

5. Management wants to see ideas

What they are doing, basically, is generating ideas, searching for an answer.  Which is exactly backwards.  What they should do is identify an answer (significant opportunity or challenge) and then generate ideas (solutions).

Getting Innovation Backwards

But this seems counterproductive.  Identifying answers – opportunities or challengesmeans taking time to research existing business challenges, prioritizing needs, understanding customer requirements.  This doesn’t seem like “innovation” and doesn’t deliver quick ideas.  So, after a month or two of following this path impatient management, not understanding the approach asks “where are the ideas?”.  So, far too many firms follow the first approach, since they think they understand the tools and know they need to deliver quickly.

But delivering poor, misaligned ideas quickly is just another way to deliver rapid failure.  When your ideas aren’t relevant or valuable, no matter how quickly you generate them, or if they fail to attract powerful sponsors or funding, who cares how quickly you generated them.

As with many things in life, received wisdom has it exactly backwards.  Identifying the key challenges, understanding the links to strategic goals, deciphering customer needs leads to understanding the potential answer.  Only then are you ready to generate ideas that matter.  Or, as Einstein said “given an hour to solve a major problem I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes working on the solution”.  Once again, our approach is exactly backwards, which is why so many idea generation activities fail to deliver great solutions.

If you generate a lot of ideas without clear context or in answer to an important strategic question or need, you are simply shoveling the manure, looking for the pony that has already left the barn.

image credit: kenokel & enrichmentjournal

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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3 Responses to Getting Innovation Backwards

  1. Pingback: Four Quick Links to Innovation Knowledge-base « The Learning Pond

  2. Pushkar says:

    Check out Sven, Thomas and I talking about how SAP, a next generation business software vendor undertakes Co-Innovation to design and deliver solutions at

  3. Darren Schumacher says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that simply generating a large number of ideas is largely counterproductive. Sending people out into the field and observing the behavior of users is almost always more useful in discovering needs than brainstroming. Domain expertise is also key. Large groups brainstorming can often bury the idea that you were looking for in a miasma of irrelevant ideas.

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