Most people in the innovation space will tell you that generating ideas is the “easy” part of innovation. For the most part, they are correct. They’ll also tell you that the difficult part of innovation is evaluating, selecting and implementing ideas. That, too, is mostly correct. But I’d argue that this statement masks a fairly important decision. It’s actually not that hard to evaluate and select ideas, but no idea makes the transition from interesting concept to product on the shelf without a senior leader who backs the idea, funds it and makes it part of her plan.
Ultimately this is like shopping for furniture with my wife. We can see many chairs or sofas that might work and be perfectly acceptable, but if she isn’t willing to put the item in our living room, it’s not going home with us. Innovation programs can generate hundreds of great ideas, and we can train people to evaluate them and spot the “best” ones, but until a person who has the power to move an idea from a concept to a product or service is involved or engaged, it can be very difficult to bring the good idea to fruition.
With this in mind let me suggest the four ways ideas are most likely to make the transition from concept to product or service: Assignment, Sponsorship, Adoption, Spinout. When you think about your innovation process you need to consider how your organization prefers to convert ideas and how executives prefer to get involved. Let’s examine each briefly.
One method sure to produce results is “assignment“. This means that a senior executive has already decided on the idea that needs to get implemented, and he or she assigns the development and deployment of an idea to a team. In this case the team doesn’t have a lot of options other than to deploy the idea as developed by the executive or someone else. While the idea is likely to come to fruition, it can be met with several challenges. First, since the team deploying the idea didn’t invent the idea, they have no great stake in the idea and may not challenge it or stretch it appropriately. Second, the idea may be unworkable but the team may not feel it’s in their power to question it. Third, as several firms have already learned, top down innovation by senior executives is rarely effective if your CEO isn’t named Steve Jobs.
The method we like best and think is most effective is “sponsorship“. In this case an executive recognizes a problem or solution and uses innovative teams and techniques to create ideas. Since the ideas that are generated solve his or her problem, the executive sponsors the idea and agrees to fund it and back it through the development and deployment process. In this case, an idea is linked directly to a problem the executive has or an opportunity that’s been identified and the executive has an investment in the idea’s success.
Some idea generation systems exist outside of specific needs or directed challenges. Many “open” innovation programs allow individuals to submit ideas of their own choosing. In these processes it can be the case that a good idea “bubbles up” and is identified by an executive, who decides to “adopt” the idea and deploy it in his or her business. The executive didn’t request the idea. The idea merely popped up on his or her radar screen and it was so compelling that the executive chooses to “adopt” the idea as his or her own.
Finally, there are ideas that are simply orphans. While they are good ideas, no one sponsored them, requested them or adopted them. In some firms these ideas make great candidates for spin-outs or new business units. Just because an idea wasn’t sponsored or adopted doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It may be that the idea is so different or so radical that the existing business lines couldn’t decide how to implement it and the idea should be developed stand-alone or perhaps as a new venture.
What’s important here is to understand innovation in the context of your organization. Which model is most likely to result in ideas that actually get implemented? Clearly we believe the sponsored model is the best approach, since there is active executive engagement throughout. However it may be the case in your innovation program that several of these outcomes happen based on the ideas that are generated. These different outcomes – sponsorship, adoption and spinout – require different implementation programs, funding mechanisms and capabilities, so understanding which one(s) are likely to happen is important when you design your innovation process and train your teams.
Finally, it’s important to understand that while you can generate hundreds of ideas, the only ideas that really matter in the end are those that get implemented as new products, services and business models. So, as you design your innovation process and team, remember to carefully consider which method or method is most likely to work within your organization.
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.