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Stop Predicting Innovation Success!

Stop predicting innovation success—you may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Innovation is complex and uncertain, and therefore success can seem to a great extent a matter of chance.

The simplest way to improve the odds of innovation success for your organization is to start with many ideas. However, then there’s the challenge of how to narrow them down without throwing out the ones most likely to succeed. So then what?

Predicting success

For now let’s assume that you have many ideas, giving you a reasonable chance that there is indeed a diamond among them. How will you know which one is the diamond? Is it worthwhile sorting through thousands of ideas and predicting the chance of success of each? Likely not.

Ordinary humans are not very good at predicting the future. Experts are not any better. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for explaining and proving that. Unfortunately, nearly all commonly used tools, from those that assess Return On Investments (ROI), to market share, or Net Present Value (NPV), are based on predictions. These indicators make pretty stories, but are fiction nonetheless.

Which metrics to use?

Rough diamonds or crystals or broken glassSo how to assess innovation projects, without predicting or using indicators meant to predict their potential value?

Start by accepting that you don’t know which idea is going to be the blockbuster. In the beginning, many ideas look worthless while some shine really nicely from the outside—but that could be fool’s gold. Accept that unlike in the diamond industry, at the start you will not be able to predict reliably what stones you are looking at when they are in the rough—diamonds, crystals, or pieces of ordinary glass.

Let your employees do the work

Your organization has great employees, right? Those who come up with ideas are typically not fools either, correct? So trust them! If they have an innovative idea, it is likely that it will have some potential. Don’t try to predict which idea will be successful, but give your employees the tools needed to test, evaluate, and improve on it.

Fortunately, the early stages of the innovation process are cheap. It often only takes some internet research to find out if the idea already exists and can just be purchased. If the idea is indeed novel, figuring out if it is workable doesn’t require major investments either, especially not when it concerns process-related or service types of innovations.

The task of your employees, who by now have become innovation champions, is to demonstrate to you that it makes sense to further develop the idea they have in mind. At the idea generation stage, the next steps can emerge from observations and interviews with those individuals most closely impacted by the proposed innovation.

100 interviews

The DC I-Corps Program suggests doing about 100 interviews at this stage of development. This seems to be the right number, but not because it is better than 10 or 1,000 interviews or because it will provide the right amount of information. It’s because 100 interviews is doable, yet it is also a lot of work. You will only make it through them if you are truly committed and get enthusiastic feedback. In any other case, you will likely quit long before reaching that number. In short, completing the 100 interviews is proof of commitment to success. An excellent way of trimming down the number of innovation ideas is eliminating those that do not inspire the same commitment.

Focus on learning and progress

Lousy teams are able to turn great ideas into failure, yet great teams are able to turn any lousy idea into a success. Commitment to making an idea work is therefore a much better predictor of success than any of the other metrics. Also, remember that innovative ideas change and evolve over time. In other words, metrics that focus on learning and progress are more worthwhile than metrics that estimate the future potential of an idea.


There are other benefits of focusing on learning and progress:

  • Allowing your employees to explore their own ideas increases job satisfaction.
  • Interviews will give teams valuable insights at the early stages of a project into what future users don’t understand, don’t want, or are not willing to pay for or do. Understanding users’ needs is essential to ensuring success in the marketplace.
  • User and stakeholder interviews enable employees to break down silos among departments.

People count

Thirty years of research has not made us better in predicting innovation success. To be more innovative, we need more people engaged in innovation.

Ideas by themselves are not successful. It is the people behind the scenes that make them successful innovations. Hence the amount of effort made by innovators is a better indicator of where a project is going than the apparent potential of the idea itself.  We therefore need to be more stringent in our expectations of the effort necessary for eager innovators to validate their ideas.

While currently only 1 out of 10 ideas becomes profitable, the ideal is to have all ideas go through the development and implementation stages, and enter the marketplace successfully. When the ideas are driven by committed teams focused on fact-finding instead of on predictions, this ideal becomes achievable.

Interested in learning more? Please visit us at or contact us at info “at” organizing4innovation “dot” com.



Kahneman, Thinking fast and slow, 2011

Steve Blank, Why the Lean Start-Up changes everything, Harvard Business Review 2013

DC I-Corps program

PDMA comparative performance assessment study 2013