One of my partners, an electrical engineer, let out a loud cry a few minutes ago. He was responding to an article I sent him about a new electical gizmo that monitors eletrical usage in the home. He was upset because he came up with a very similar idea about a year ago, but he assumed it was safe to put on hold for a while.
This points up an innovation fallacy, and a separate truism. First, the fallacy. Good ideas are rarely conceived in isolation. Even really good ideas often happen in several different places relatively simultaneously. So while you may think your great idea is unique and original, there’s a good chance it isn’t. The truism that follows is that it’s not the individual or team that conceives the idea that wins, it’s the individual or team that commercializes that wins.
Let’s look at the fallacy first. As is fairly well documented, Newton and Leibnitz conceived calculus at roughly the same time in history with no interaction. Alexander Graham Bell and another inventor applied for patents for the telephone on the same day. Good ideas to solve seemingly intractable problems or address emerging opportunities are rarely unique. Simply ask yourself – have you ever seen a new product or service and thought “I thought of that years ago”. There are enough smart people reading the same news and watching the same events unfold as your team, so many ideas are likely to be spawned simultaneously in a number of geographies or in a number of different companies.
This places all the more emphasis on commitment to your ideas. If you have a good idea, then you need to move as quickly as possible to prototype it, pilot it, assess it and gain customer feedback. Don’t assume you have time on your side, or that your idea is significantly unique. The latter is a fallacy and the former is a trap. Time is not on your side. As people become more aware of opportunities or challenges and attempt to create their own solutions, more people will try to innovate a robust solution. Some of those firms won’t have the scruples to evaluate, test and refine their ideas. They’ll stick an idea out there, gain feedback and learn from their products and mistakes.
Innovations wait for no man. Since it’s easy to show the same ideas are often conceived by disparate groups at roughly the same time, you need to be prepared to move on your ideas as soon as possible. This means you need a process or methodology to enrich, nurture and develop ideas quickly, and a piloting or feedback loop to gain customer feedback. Once you’ve received the feedback, you may then decide the idea is too nascent or the needs still too undefined for your idea, and place it on the shelf. Otherwise, someone else is likely to beat you to the punch, and leave you yelling at your monitor that you had that idea a year ago.
The race goes not to the swift or the battle to the strong, but success in innovation goes to the confident team prepared to act on its ideas.
Jeffrey 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 innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.