When it comes to innovation roadblocks, one of the biggest problems I see firms cite is a shortage of new ideas.
My theory, however, is that there is no shortage of good ideas, but rather a problematic set of criteria used to identify them. When looking for ideas, management tends to look in the wrong place, for the wrong things.
Looking for the wrong things
When I search for criteria for selecting ideas, Google gives me resources like:
INC. lists clarity, usability, stability, scalability, stickiness, integration, and profitability as the optimal criteria for selecting the most innovative ideas.
Innovation Management recommends a robust selection process, rigid criteria, and a suitable selection team.
SmartStorming also suggests a set of predetermined criteria, in combination with a completely constructive discussion process and a fixed system for zeroing in on a final idea.
Medium posits an “innovation trifecta” comprised of customer need (desirability), operational ability (feasibility), and profit potential (viability), with the best ideas fulfilling all three areas of significance.
All of these articles assume that ideas emerge clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, early stage ideas don’t come with these attributes.
Early stage ideas are vague notions of what is possible
Early stage ideas are vague notions of what is possible. They are either too abstract or too detailed, too unclear or too focused. Additionally, the individual presenting the idea has a significant impact on its perceived quality. A sales representative, for example, can make any idea sound desirable, feasible, and viable. An engineer, on the other hand, will raise questions about any idea, no matter how desirable, feasible, or viable. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up evaluating not the idea, but its messenger.
Bringing an innovative idea to market takes work. Developing a clear, concise expression of an idea is part of the development process. If you expect ideas to be precisely expressed from the start, you will only get simple ideas. After all, only the most uncomplicated, common-sense ideas are easy to explain. Revolutionary new things are difficult to articulate at first; how do you explain something that doesn’t exist yet, except in terms of what it doesn’t look like? How do you do so elegantly and succinctly without any practice?
Attributes you should look at
When you lack good ideas, your best option is not to instruct your innovators on how to better express themselves, but to learn to identify the attributes of great ideas in their early stages. Such attributes include:
- a passionate innovator
- an organizational champion
- an agreeable team of volunteers
- a collaborative client
None of the above have much significance in terms of feasibility, viability, or overall value, yet the simple element of a strong proponent or team of supporters is often much more indicative of a project’s future success.
Looking in the wrong place
Ideas, like symptoms of an illness, are the manifestation of an underlying problem. Addressing ideas as they appear is unlikely to permanently rectify the actual issue; the actual opportunity for innovation is the problem itself. Therefore, if you’re looking for good ideas, don’t solicit ideas. Solicit problems, and the inherent opportunities.
Although managers tend to hesitate at the prospect of a litany of complaints, such an outpouring is, in reality, a gold mine of fresh ideas. Complaints highlight critical areas of frustration. A complaint’s frequency effectively indicates the size of the problem, who it impacts. What’s more, you can characterize and prioritize a complaint by how clearly it’s been expressed. In other words, it’s substantially easier to evaluate the validity of solving a particular problem than it is to assess each idea that it elicits.
Put the problem before the idea
Once you’ve identified a problem worth solving, you can devote both external and internal brainpower to finding a solution. Those solutions can then be evaluated based on criteria relevant to that specific problem such as relevance, feasibility, cost, etc.
So, whether you’re searching for good ideas to help your organization out of the COVID19 hole or you find yourself suffering from a lack of ideas overall, think in terms of problems and opportunities. I guarantee, the good ideas will come.