Ideas can be the easy part of innovation. If innovators define challenges rigorously, they face a reasonably straightforward task in creating exciting concepts. Walls can get covered with provocative stickies, and a handful of winning notions may be simple to spot. Time to high-five!
Then the danger starts. Companies tend to kill great ideas in three ways. Seldom is the peril overt. Rather, the hazards attack in a slow, insidious, and devastatingly effective manner:
1. The Zombie Scenario -- Many projects never really die, they just fade away. Under-resourced, hamstrung by diverging decision-makers, and forced to meet high hurdles before they can get market traction, project teams slowly march forward, zombie-like, toward a market opportunity that may well have moved on before managers can re-direct. Critical people get taken off the team, and the effort lingers in a half-dead state while it continues to suck management attention without promising real success.
2. The Congressional Omnibus -- Some projects begin as terrific ideas, but then they have to take on a long list of additional features to satisfy key stakeholders. Marginally desirable requirements slow down projects, add costs, increase execution risk, and confuse customers. Yet companies are often built to make ideas perfect, whereas launching a merely good-enough offering would be sufficient to determine whether a long-term market opportunity truly exists. The first video game was the ultra-simple Pong, and it was a blockbuster.
3. The Slow Bleed -- Seldom is the first pass of an idea perfect, and subsequent discussions with stakeholders can shift concepts in critical ways. The danger is that these individuals may feel uncomfortable with ideas that challenge long-established norms or disrupt their well-honed operations. I recall doing the rounds inside a big retail bank, discussing an exciting business opportunity. After about the tenth meeting we had, a young Associate turned to me and said, “It feels as though, with each additional person we meet, this idea gets shaped to be more like what they’re already doing.” He was spot-on. A hot idea holds little spark when it is watered-down, but the matrixed and consensus-driven nature of many organizations leads to many concepts losing their disruptive nature.
How can innovators avoid these threats? In smaller companies, very carefully choose which ideas are worth distraction. Then pursue them with gusto. The entrepreneur never has enough time in the day to get everything done, but a handful of initiatives can create growth options and prevent tunnel-vision by generating new perspective on marketplace needs.
At bigger firms, defenses should take several interlocking forms:
1. Create tight project mandates: Executives often fudge a project’s mandate, using vagueness to cover up hidden disagreements or lack of time to think through an opportunity area. Resist that urge. A clear mandate protects projects against organizational inertia and politicking.
2. Govern projects regularly: If a project is meant to be fast-moving, quarterly updates just won’t do. Remarkably, many big firms let executives’ busy calendars drive the infrequent scheduling of updates, and then they bottleneck decisions while waiting for those key meetings. Make governance meetings frequent and brief. Send informational updates through to executives in advance, so that meetings can focus on discussion in the short time available. Remember the (good) consultant’s motto: “PowerPoint should facilitate the conversation, not be the conversation.”
3. Empower managers: In venture capital-backed firms, Boards will typically meet every month. Between those meetings, entrepreneurs generally have great latitude to make impactful decisions. The model works – venture capital firms earn on average 25% more on their innovation investments than do public companies. Clear mandates and frequent governance diminish the risk inherent in empowering managers, while allowing them to make the kinds of authoritative calls that defeat innovation’s insidious foes.
4. Set strict deadlines: In my first industry job after consulting, I was responsible for creating one of the world’s first smartphones. I imagined an extensive set of slides to fill out based on all sorts of analysis we could do. Then I discovered that we needed to finalize the feature list in two weeks if we wanted to ship in time for the holiday season. It was a remarkably clarifying moment that forced critical decisions and prevented creeping scope. Start-ups operate in a similar context, with venture capitalists giving them a bit of money and a relatively tight timeframe to focus on one or two critical tasks. If the start-up meets the challenge, it gets the next tranche of funding.
These steps are not complicated, but they often require operating outside a company’s comfort zone. Do so. Without making a handful of tough decisions up-front, projects based on great ideas slide too frequently into irrelevance. For inspiration, remember a key fact about zombies: there may be hoards of them, but each one is remarkably easy to escape.
For further reading, click here for a book chapter on building innovation capabilities.
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