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Many innovation initiatives result in lots of unimplemented ideas and few results. Too many companies are fixated on finding the next big idea rather than creating an execution engine. Results are achieved by turning ideas into action, a part of the innovation process that is often given short-shrift.

Innovation: What's the big idea?

Posted  on 7/2/09

Man holding giant light bulb over headToo much focus on ideation and not enough on evaluation or execution means lots and lots of flipcharts and few results

After being part of several innovation initiatives, I have started to see some patterns that end up with lots of documentation but few real benefits. The first is the fixation on good ideas - creating, capturing, categorizing, cataloging, and keeping a library of ideas. This is the pattern I have seen:

A company decides that it needs to be more innovative, a must to stay healthy and grow. To do this, it launches an innovation initiative with great fanfare and implores its employees to think "out-of-the-box" and contribute their ideas on improving the company or for new products.  Sometimes training in creativity or other innovation techniques is part of the initiative. Innovation teams are set up all over the place with the usual management cast-of-characters designated to review and choose ideas. Special rooms or websites are used to collect ideas and each department also conducts ideation sessions with the results going to one of the innovation teams.

A month or two into the initiative, everyone is excited and starting to find ways to be more innovative. Funky furniture and decorations appear here and there and special days are designated for being creative. Six to eight months into the initiative, the organization is overwhelmed with lots of ideas, but few action plans. The innovation teams cannot review all the ideas, so many are just recorded and then ignored. Some of their focus is now on creating a library and cataloging all these ideas so that they don't lost, but this is a daunting effort. Although they have received some good suggestions, the management is disappointed that they have not yet seen a truly big idea. Employees are starting to get frustrated and disillusioned because either their ideas are being ignored, rejected, or put on hold to address later. Only a few ideas have been enacted.  The initiative starts to lose momentum.

Ideas are a dime a dozen

Sometimes companies get hung up on finding the next big idea, an idea that is groundbreaking, easy-to-implement, a sure-fire marketplace hit, and truly unique. Everyone will instinctively recognize the big idea when they first see it because that great big light bulb will turn on. However, the problem is that these big ideas don't actually exist. Anything really ground breaking idea is likely difficult to implement, certainly a marketplace risk, and most often scoffed at by others at first. (Think airplanes, electric lights, cars, and rockets.)  Plus, most ideas are never truly unique. Knowledge builds and people tend to develop similar ideas at the same time. In science, many Nobel prizes are shared by people working separately on similar concepts at the same time, and most often scientists are racing to publish their findings ahead of others working in the same field. 

So, stop fixating on the big idea and on what really matters in innovation - turning ideas into actions. The most successful inventor of all time, Thomas Edison, was successful because he built a factory to turn ideas into inventions. Remember his definition of invention  as"1% inspiration and 99% perspiration?" 

To help you find success in innovation initiatives, I've come up with the Four Innovation E's - Evaluation, EliminationExecution, and Environment.

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Featured Neologisms

Undue diligence   –
the endless process of collecting more information in order to avoid making a decision
Team vynamics   -
Group behavior wherein individuals at a meeting vie for dominance