Innovation and Idea Generation


Traditional understanding of innovation associates it with idea generation. Organizations find themselves creating think tanks or brain trusts that sit in a room and think about how to disrupt their business. The fundamental thought behind this approach is that the magic of innovation lies with a new idea. Most think it is the companies that develop better ideas that gain the advantage in the marketplace.

Similarly, conventional thought associates the risks of innovation with the quality of the ideas generated by the organization. This type of thinking reinforces the need to focus on good idea generation. When ideas fail, the approach becomes to gather the smartest people and have them come up with better ways to overcome challenges in the business.

These conventional thoughts about innovation are wrong. Innovation is not idea generation and the risks of innovation do not lie in idea quality. Innovation is rapid execution, and rapid execution mitigates the risk of failure.

An idea without action is only an idea. As connected as today’s world is, ideas are no longer special. Everyone has ideas and so many of them are great. The idea you think is special is far more prevalent than you think. You and can no longer differentiate based on idea generation. You will only be known by your execution. The difference, the only difference, is that solid execution and action toward a common goal is still a rarity.

Create Culture with a Bias Toward Action

Successful innovation starts with creating a culture that has a bias toward action and rewards execution. There shouldn’t be one small team or department tasked with innovation. It should be part of your culture. Remember that action begets more action, and that idea generation only begets more ideas. Sometimes careful planning and thought about execution is important, but at some point it is important to stop the creativity process and focus on execution, even when an idea is not perfect. Executing on that idea and moving it forward with action will naturally help the idea evolve. It will also bring you more ideas naturally as you face real problems and challenges in your business.

In the book “Making Ideas Happen” Scott Belsky offers some great advice on how to create a culture based on action. He makes the point that creativity and productivity are linked. Often truly game-changing ideas come from trial and error, because innovation is a numbers game. Here are just some of the thoughts I’ve noted from reading the book:

  • Energy is fixed, you must prioritize
  • Think about how you usually allocate your energy
  • Keep lists
  • Make a daily focus area
  • Don’t dwell on or worry about negative outcomes
  • Don’t hoard urgent items (delegate)
  • Create a responsibility grid
  • Create windows of non-stimulation to get projects done
  • Listen to what others start nagging about
  • Make the most of meetings, don’t meet just because it’s Monday
  • Always leave meetings with action items
  • Keep shipping
  • Recognize failure is OK
  • Remember constraints increase productivity
  • Recognize you need a community to make big things happen, you can’t do it on your own

Act While Ideas are Fresh

Time is the one resource that you cannot buy. You cannot create more of it or accumulate any surplus. When you have an idea, you must act on it quickly.

Realize that the energy people have to give to an idea is greatest when the idea is born. Without action, this energy will decay over time. You must capitalize on the excitement that comes from the creative process to launch your team into action. Once people act, their energy will be sustained by the progress they see around them and the natural energy that comes from working together.

Just as time deflates the team’s energy to rally behind an idea, it will also deteriorate the quality of the idea. The longer you let an idea sit on a piece of paper or on a white board in a conference room without actively engaging the team on that subject, the foggier the idea becomes in each individual’s mind. Details and context are forgotten. Remember that even if some are actively executing aspects of the project, others will need to remain engaged. Find ways to keep them engaged and communicate often.

If enough time passes and the organization habitually develops new ideas and experiences excessive delay before their execution, resentment towards future new ideas and projects can creep in. When this happens individuals feel that any energy they give towards a new idea will ultimately be wasted energy. They know execution will not happen and preemptively withdraw from the process. This is clearly a dangerous atmosphere you do not want to create. Remember that your action helps inspire commitment by others.

Embrace Failure

If you are going to fail, fail quickly and cheaply. Remember that part of innovation means change. Any new territory embarked upon will heighten the probability of failure. That is not a bad thing. In fact, if you can learn how to fail quickly and cheaply, learn from that experience, modify actions or plans and maintain velocity, then you have a huge advantage over others.

There are many benefits to acting early on ideas, but one of the costs is that details will not get fully vetted. You will experience missteps. You will find that certain opinions were not considered. Be ready to address these things quickly. Try and build a culture that can react in a constructive way to pivots in direction or adjustments in the plan. Acknowledge those that experience additional pressure or stress due to these challenges. Reallocate resources to areas of struggle and be supportive.

The faster you take action and execute on your ideas, the faster you will discover real challenges that either warrant a change in strategy, or will require a testing of commitment. Breaking through these challenges is critical. If you fail to overcome these things or wait to overcome them, they start to own you. At the same time, breaking through these challenges can be inspiring. When you get behind your idea, and reach a point of commitment, others in the organization follow. The change in your mindset permeates everything. Those who must rise to the challenge are inspired to stretch themselves for the benefit of seeing all to succeed.

Conclusions

Innovation is more about action that it is about ideas. Good ideas are far too common. Before you worry about what the next great idea is, think of how you can work with a bias toward action. Action consumes energy, but often yields more energy than it takes. If you are not failing some of the time, you are not pushing yourself enough. Embrace failure and learn from it. You can only do your best and constantly try to do better.