If you have ever watched calf roping in the rodeo, you have seen the cowboy ride out after a running calf, rope it, throw it to the ground, loop a rope around its back legs, and throw his hand in the air. Some innovation programs are run in a similar manner.
I have been associated with innovation programs in large and small companies and one of the main problems I often encounter is Rodeo treatment of ideas. Often the ideas are screened and the ones which do not meet the hurdle are dismissed, archived, or just forgotten. Since the individual idea did not make the defined hurdle, they just faded away.
The screening and archiving often happen solely within the innovation program. Often the business unit the idea is targeted towards is not even aware the idea existed. The rejection of the idea is handled as part of the official innovation program where they review the idea and if it does not meet the innovation program’s criteria, they throw their hand in the air and archive the idea. The ideas are processed and forgotten. This should not be one of the goals of an effective innovation program.
My experience with innovation has shown the original idea may be lacking, not meet the hurdle, is missing something, or is ill-defined. This can occur even with highly qualified employees operating in a lab environment. I have seen ideas which have a strong technical component but had no economic basis. I have seen ideas with a detailed business case but required divine intervention to actually implement the ideas. Not every idea is born fully formed. Some have to be cultivated.
In an innovation program, you will likely find ideas can be grouped in categories. You can see the activity within these categories fluctuate over time. Many times the employee base recognizes a problem and struggles with solutions for it. They may take different approaches to the issues. They may have different styles of approaching the problem. Or, they might break the mold when addressing a particular vexing issue. What all of these have in common is they are trying to solve the same problem. This grouping of ideas can give you a barometer of what your employees think is important.
A properly structured innovation program needs to track and categorize the submissions, even if they are rejected during the process. On a periodic basis, the submissions should be reviewed, compared, and graphed. The analysis should provide a multiyear view of the data and should be presented to business units and management. This will provide insight into what the employees may think is important and can help identify issues which are common across organizations. It will also help to show the value of a well-structured innovation program beyond the development of individual ideas.
Another benefit of looking back at the rejected ideas is when the ideas are collated they may show natural synergies. While a single idea may not have met the criteria to continue in the innovation program, when combined with another idea it may be a real winner.
I have had experience with developing numerous patents and new businesses. Rarely has the initial idea been the one we eventually patent or implement. Normally we identify a problem and then work to develop the best solution for the problem. I have a rule of thumb – it takes approximately 30 revisions of an idea before it is tight enough to really resonate with the target audience. These revisions can be the core idea, positioning, value proposition, etc.
What is intended with this rule is to correctly set expectations of the staff. We should continue to refine the idea and message. We need to make sure we are on the right track. We need to avoid Rodeo Innovation. Many times I see an initial idea presented as if it is complete at inception. This is rarely the case.
Most of the time innovation is shaped by the focus of the inventor. If the innovator is in engineering, they tend to focus on the technical; if the innovator is in finance, they tend to focus on the numbers; if the innovator is in marketing, they tend to focus on the message; if the innovator is in sales, they tend to focus on the customer’s reaction. Of course there are exceptions to this, however, in large companies you often find this focus is the rule. This translates into an innovation program with “partial ideas” being presented. Many of the ideas submitted seem to be missing pieces. They tend to be focused on the inventor’s area of expertise.
When we correlate the ideas presented to the innovation program we may find two ideas which have been rejected can be combined to make a good idea. These ideas can be directly in line with each other or even tangentially related. An effective innovation program should not be static in the way it processes ideas. It should include a formal method to periodically review previous ideas and see if they can be combined.
The inventors can be used to help combine the ideas. Once ideas are grouped into the relevant areas, the original inventors or the employee base can be asked if the ideas can be combined in a manner making it more attractive to the company. Remember ideas submitted to an innovation program can be used as a barometer of what your employees think is important.
Often you can make the combination exercise a fun event for the inventors. It can be a conference call, after work event, or lunchtime gathering. It should be introduced as an extra the innovation program does for particularly interesting ideas. You can even bring in experts from inside and outside the company to address questions. Be sure to position the idea correctly. For example – “To date, the company has not chosen to pursue [the concept], however, it has been a recurring submission. A second look may be worth our time.”
The goals for the individuals running your innovation program need to be tailored to the individual needs of the organization and the maturity of the program, however, there are some guidelines to help keep your innovation program on track. Remember the basic premise of a properly designed innovation program should be to actually enable and foster innovation in your organization. Poorly defined goals will tend to focus on how fast the ideas are processed through the system instead of the quantity or quality of the ideas actually moving forward into real projects or products.
The personnel involved in the innovation program may argue they cannot have impact on the quality of the ideas – this is not true. Don’t fall for it. They should be responsible for changing the environment to develop quality innovation in your organization. The goals for the program should be designed and incentivized to make real changes in your organization. Don’t settle for a Rodeo Innovation program.
The goals for your innovation program will not only impact the behavior of the people involved in administering your innovation program but will also drive the organization’s view of management’s commitment to innovation. If you allow a Rodeo Innovation program to exist, your employees may take it to mean – innovation is not important, is a box to be checked, or is an ancillary function. Your goals and the goals of the people in the innovation program should be designed to demonstrate your commitment to making fundamental long term changes to your organization using innovation.
Treat innovation as any other part of your organization – it is work. It should be viewed as a vocation and not a hobby. Your professionals in your innovation program should not merely sit back and wait for ideas to come to them. They should actively pursue and encourage high quality ideas across the company.
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About the Author
My name is Archer Tope – this is a pseudonym or Nom de Plume if you prefer. The reason for the use of this subterfuge is to protect my true identity while I continue to work in the innovation and intellectual property field. I have been involved in or around innovation for at least 20 years. I decided to write this book because I found some individuals and entities tend to view innovation as more of a hobby instead of a true vocation. This has always bothered me because there is a method to implement an effective innovation program – and it works.
I have over 70 domestic US and international patents to my name. Many of my patents have been sold or used to develop products and companies which were sold to others. I have been involved with startups which have had public exits, got caught in stock market crashes, acted as an expert witness in a patent litigation, sold patent portfolios, helped structure new innovation programs, negotiated innumerable contracts, run development teams, and sued a Fortune 50 company for patent infringement. My view of the innovation landscape may be broad, however, I have also dealt in the details.