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While companies try to create out-of-the box ideas, they often use in-the-box evaluation methods. The first common problem is using the area experts to evaluate ideas without the benefit of new eyes The second is voting or reaching consensus to choose ideas. This guarantees that no truly creative or disruptive ideas will be chosen. Ideas should be sponsored rather than chosen. This is the first step to guarantee execution.

Innovation: Evaluation

Posted  on 8/19/09

man using child's game to decideFresh, new ideas seen by tired, old eyes just seem tired and old

Lose the experts

There's a well-known story about Richard Feynman, a famous and brilliant physicist (the guy who found the o-ring problem with the Challenger shuttle). When he arrived at CalTech, his faculty advisor wouldn't let him take any physics classes because he didn't want to ruin Richard's mind. At MIT, my professors often talked about the best research being conducted by scientists in their twenties and early thirties,  not because younger is smarter, but because they don't know any better. Game-changing ideas challenge the orthodoxy of the way things are and people steeped in that orthodoxy are more likely to believe in its veracity and less likely to challenge it. You can only achieve the impossible if you don't know that its impossible.

Let's return to our innovation teams. Here it is, stocked with the usual suspects - all the experts in that area. Whenever they encounter an idea that challenges the orthodoxy of their field, they shake their heads at the naiveté of the originator. Obviously, he or she knows nothing about how things are done. It may seem like a good idea to outsiders, but that's simply not how their area works. Unfortunately, membership on these teams is often a political process and the current top managers or future leaders, who are already part of managing the business, end up on these teams. How can you take the same people who are responsible for implementing new ideas  as part of their normal jobs, rebrand them as an innovation team and expect a result different from what they've already been doing?

The people evaluating the ideas must be those who are not experts in the field. You can have experts on the team, but they should be in the minority, not the majority. You can' t get out-of-the-box thinking from people already deeply in the box. This is why your teams should also include your most junior members and the people whose thinking is most different from the current management team.

Consensus breeds mediocrity

You've all heard the tales of great innovators being scoffed at for their crazy ideas. Yet, despite the disdain from the general public or the established community, the great innovator persisted, perhaps with some encouragement from one or two supporters until he or she showed the naysayers how wrong they were. This is the classic tale of innovation. Yet, in business, how do we evaluate ideas? By consensus, of course. The most votes wins!

This method guarantees that the lowest common denominator ideas will pass through to the next step. Any really ground-breaking idea will be controversial, and these controversial ideas will be weeded out through the voting process. When I led an innovation team, we didn't vote on ideas. We discussed and eliminated some, but ideas were progressed by assigning sponsors. The sponsor(s) was responsible for fleshing the concept out and taking it to the next step. If you were really passionate about something, you became its sponsor. If an idea didn't spark that crazy passion and couldn't find a sponsor, it was abandoned.  We took an amazing number of ideas to fruition!   And people got to work on things they were passionate about! What more could you ask for?

Assigning sponsors to nurture ideas is a much better way to ensure that all the crazy and controversial ideas don't get weeded out by driving to consensus. Consensus will only get you mediocrity, and you probably already have enough of that.

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