Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Defining and prioritizing idea streams

In the course of working with clients, we often find at least three different "streams" of ideas.  These streams represent different perspectives and different kinds of ideas, and we believe they should be prioritized according to the strategic goals of the business and the intended purpose of innovation.

The three streams are:
  1. Strategic business needs that innovation can support.  In this regard, a senior executive defines a specific need or opportunity, and plans innovation activities to generate new ideas that will result in incremental or disruptive solutions.  We call this "directed" innovation, since it starts with a specific team or individual aligned to a strategic need directing a group of people to a powerful new idea.
  2. Ideas that occur to anyone, anywhere, in the business or even external to the business.  In this example, it is a common occurrance for people in any organization to have a good idea.  These ideas may solve a current, strategic problem or simply improve an existing process.  When ideas happen outside a strategic definition or prioritization (as above) we call these "opportunistic" ideas.
  3. Ideas and innovations that occur as an outcome of research.  It is fairly common in organizations with R&D teams that new research may spawn new ideas.  This research may be in service to an innovation activity, or may simply be pure research.  But these kinds of ideas don't happen just in R&D.  Any business function engaged in research - researching better solutions, researching customer needs and expectations - may discover new ideas.  We typically refer to this stream as the "research and discovery" stream of ideas.
Now, each stream is important and serves different, sometimes competing purposes.  Directed innovation is important because it seeks, from the outset, to address critical needs and gaps that are recognized by the business as important, and the work is supported by a key executive.  This means the innovation activity is likely to be supported through idea generation and onward to product development.  Opportunistic ideas are important because they happen throughout the organization.  Capturing them and managing them is important because that demonstrates to the organization that anyone can contribute good ideas, and it is possible to have those ideas heard and potentially implemented.  Research and discovery ideas are important because they are the ideas that are most likely to produce a real breakthrough, but often the most difficult to gain acceptance within the organization.

Several key questions arise from this categorization:
  1. Which stream, if any, should we prioritize?
  2. Are there differences in managing the streams?
  3. How do we prioritize and fund ideas across the streams?
 There are a couple of items to note about the streams as well:


Directed innovation happens when an executive recognizes a need or opportunity in a business and kicks of an innovation program or initiative.  This should lead to customer research, idea generation and onward to product or service development.  Directed innovation is focused on a sponsored, strategic need, so it does not need to attract resources - the executive team will provide them.  Further, while there are fewer initiatives and fewer ideas, more of these initiatives are likely to deliver products and services than the other two streams.


Opportunistic ideas are often good ideas in their narrow context, but may not address larger strategic issues or be in alignment with strategic goals.  These ideas may need to be linked to strategic goals or initiatives before they can be prioritized.  When your organization decides to accept opportunistic ideas, you'll need to develop a database that allows individuals to submit and define ideas, and establish a process for managing those ideas and interacting with the submitters.  This cannot become a black box!  The difficulty with opportunistic ideas is that while they may be reasonable, they may not attract individuals or executives willing to sponsor them or provide resources to develop the ideas.  Often, opportunistic programs can collect hundreds of ideas, and only a few are implemented.  However, a well-organized and well-run opportunistic program can increase engagement across the organization.


Ideas and innovation based on research are perhaps the most problematic, because they are exceptionally difficult to anticipate or predict, and they can be very disruptive.  There is a lot of power in the insights and ideas generated from research, but often not enough patience on the part of the executive team or enough focus on the part of the researchers, so this activity can often become an "Alice in Wonderland" exercise unless carefully scripted, which is why many ideas from research often result when research is linked to directed innovation.

Which comes first?

There are debates about which should come first, directed innovation or opportunistic idea gathering.  There are a couple of considerations.  First, how engaged and active is the organization as a whole where innovation is concerned?  If we open up an opportunistic idea gathering and networking program, will people participate?  Will they generate meaningful, valuable ideas?  Second, can you define and implement a program that prioritizes ideas and quickly implements the best ones?  There's no reason to gather a lot of opportunistic ideas if you can't select the best ones and convert them into new products or services.  Third, what is the role of innovation in your business?  If innovation is meant to have a strategic impact, starting from the top with directed innovation will ensure a tighter link between strategy and innovation, moreso than opportunistic ideas.  Fourth, how are good ideas recognized, prioritized and funded?  If the prioritization and funding mechanisms are weak, opportunistic programs will collect a lot of ideas but never support any for funding.  Fifth, how much engagement and involvement do you want across your organization?  Opportunistic idea programs open up innovation activities to a large population, and the number of ideas they generate may overwhelm the capability to respond, which will create anger and cynicism.  While directed innovation requires more planning and process, opportunistic idea programs are easy to implement but difficult to maintain without significant resources.

Our recommendation

Nothing happens in a business without the approval and buy-in of the executive team.  Therefore, start with a directed innovation program meant to solve challenges and problems aligned to strategic business needs as a first step.  This will require your team to define how to manage and select ideas.  Once this program is developed and working, then implement an opportunistic program to collect ideas generated by the whole organization, and define a selection and prioritization matrix for the opportunistic ideas to determine which ones move forward, and then work them in the same or a very similar manner as the directed ideas.  This approach gains some quick and strategic wins and allows you to develop an innovation team and methodology that you can then scale to manage a larger number and range of ideas.  Don't try to do all of this at once, the needs and requirements are different and the engagement model is significantly different between the different idea streams.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:53 AM


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