Culture, talent, incentives, patents and motivation all contribute to innovative growth, but what about process? Before you yawn and stop reading, bear with me because process may sound boring but it is critical to innovation.
Is Innovation a Business Process? … I think of innovation as a specific example of a business process. Business processes define how work gets done and how different business functions interact to produce results. Processes represent a collection of related, structured activities or tasks that produce a specific service or product for a particular customer. Often they are visualized in a flowchart as a sequence of activities. Most companies strive to develop efficient, repeatable and usable processes that provide the foundation for achieving business objectives. The business objective of an innovation process could be, for example, a product idea that consumers will buy and that can be implemented successfully by the company. Other examples of innovation include business innovation, organizational innovation, process innovation, technology innovation, marketing innovation and strategy innovation. Also, it helps to think of business processes as not just being about workflows, but also about the people who bring them to life and the company culture that drives the processes and people.
What is a Product Innovation Process … So what is the scope and extent of an innovation process? The broadest definition of a product innovation process includes ideation (the process of picking and developing a good idea), exploring feasibility, executing from idea to prototype, scale-up, commercialization, and finally product launch. So a truly comprehensive innovation process would cover innovation aspects that span ideation to launch. While many companies have well-defined process maps for formal product development (i.e. from the prototype to launch phase), the “fuzzy front end” of innovation, often called ideation, frequently is not mapped in any formal way. So for this post let’s talk about the “fuzzy front end” of the ideation process.
How many Ideas make it? … Good product ideas don’t just come out of thin air. Ideation is a time consuming process with a high failure rate so companies need a disciplined approach to ensure there will be a constant stream of new product ideas to evaluate and execute. For example and as a rough estimate, for every 100 ideas generated, 10 may be “good” enough to be considered seriously and of those, 5 may be developed into product concepts. Of those 5 ideas, 2 are actually tested with consumers and of those 1 might actually make it to market. These two funnels schematically represent how ideas have to be filtered to those that make sense for a particular company.
At the fuzzy end of innovation many ideas need to be considered, the failure rate is high, and few make it to the end. It’s tough to keep an abundant stream of ideas coming in year after year without a disciplined innovation process.
Why commit your Innovation Process to a Map? … For starters, the innovation process provides a mechanism to filter ideas so you are left with the “good” ones at the end. Mapping is a collaborative process between the colleagues who execute the process, the colleagues who hand-off tasks to the functional groups, and the managers involved in governance. This means that people are forced onto the same page – literally. (See the examples of process maps below).
Here are some examples of the advantages of mapping any process:
- Process Mapping Is Inherently a Collaborative, Risk-Reducing, Problem-Solving Process – when done right there is a decrease in anxiety and fear and an increase in alignment which reduces stress in the organization.
- Process Mapping Enables Teams to Define their Future Work Practices and Outputs – this gives teams and functional groups a sense of ownership in defining their future state.
- Process Mapping Reduces Complexity and Creates Visual Clarity – process maps help teams and functional groups explain what they do and do not do to other members of the organization which adds organizational clarity.
When applied to innovation processes and ideation in particular, process mapping has these additional benefits:
- Improves Productivity and Operational Efficiency – a greater number of quality ideas are developed that provide more choice for the company
- Reduces Cycle Time – quicker time for development of quality ideas that have been tested with consumers means quicker time to launch
- Clarifies Roles and Increases Collaboration – colleagues know their roles and less time is wasted figuring out who does what
- Standardizes Operations – all ideas get treated equally and the “best” get to the top, not just the boss’s or the company owner’s ideas
- Increases Compliance – all ideas are vetted the same way….so there are no skunk projects that are sacred even if they don’t make sense
Examples of Innovation Process Maps … Innovation process maps vary greatly in style, detail and content. There really is no right or wrong innovation process but there are some basic fundamentals common to all innovation processes. Over and above those fundamentals, most companies will imprint their own processes with “markers” or characteristics unique to their company. Several examples are shown here to give the reader a taste of the large variation found in these process maps.
Philosophy IB’s innovation process is illustrated below….it involves first carefully defining the innovation goal, obtaining consumer insights around the innovation goal, using associations and connections from other market segments, products and technologies to develop new ideas, prototype ideas, test new ideas with consumers and then plan the feasibility and execution of those ideas and incorporate them into the new product development process.
Factors to be Careful of… Set a clear end goal for ideation. A fuzzy goal will lead to fuzzy ideas. Look for new consumer insights to drive innovation sessions. Focus on creating winning ideas and just not picking the most popular ones. Build consensus to identify the best ideas and develop them and occasionally take some of the less popular ideas and develop them. It may take much iteration and several years for an idea to reach fruition. An ideation process should not create an administrative burden. You probably want to keep a database of ideas previously developed and tested but the idea is to reduce cycle-time and decision-making. Involve Upper Management often and get their buy-in to develop ideas without micro-management.
Focus on generating quality ideas with the involvement of colleagues from all levels in the company. Be careful of the small idea, the incremental line extension and the “not invented here” syndrome. Focus on different, new ideas and where they lead you. Be careful not to be paralyzed by data analysis. Eight out of ten new products are destined to fail anyway, in spite of extensive consumer testing… Enough said about the predictive value of consumer research. In the end, your company will have to develop an acceptance that not all product introductions will be successful but that is the price paid for having some successful new product introductions. And finally, remember that the process has to be implemented or it will sit in a dark room gathering dust. For example breathe life into your process through training, integrate it in the product development process, and incorporate it in your company culture through performance management metrics and incentives.
Summary … Some people believe that an innovation (or ideation) process won’t work. They believe it will stifle creativity and make innovation less likely to be successful. Somehow innovation is meant to be organic….if you have the right culture it will bubble up to surface. The argument is that an innovation process will simply make innovation bureaucratic and slow creativity down with unnecessary paperwork and that anything that is different and risky will be eliminated by the process.
However, I believe that colleagues in your organization will not spontaneously deliver quality new ideas on a regular basis unless they are exceptionally motivated. People get bogged down in putting out day to day fires and solving urgent operational issues leaving little time for ideation. An innovation process provides the time, structure and discipline to think and develop new ideas on a regular basis. This forces us to take regular time-outs to think seriously about innovation. My caveat is that the innovation process must be a non-bureaucratic, minimalistic governance process for selecting, identifying and evaluating new ideas. The innovation process must be quick, fun and empowering, not over-shadowed by a bureaucratic, top-down governance process. Set clear end goals for the innovation team and then let them loose. Good things will happen.
© Dennis Nelson 2013