Innovation Is More Than Idea Generation
By Patrick Tam, CMA®, CPA, Member of IMA® Young Professionals Advisory Committee, Manager, Financial Planning and Analysis in the Property Casualty Insurance Industry, Creator of TheConstantAnalyst blog
Innovation is often associated with idea generation, leading organizations to believe that companies with better ideas gain the advantage in the marketplace. As a result, organizations create think tanks or brain trusts that sit in a room and brainstorm how to disrupt business, but rarely do they actually act on these ideas.
Similarly, conventional wisdom assumes that risks are the result of poor idea generation. When ideas fail, the proposed solution is to gather the smartest people and have them find better ways to overcome challenges in the business, instead of focusing on the benefits of failure.
These theories regarding innovation are wrong. Innovation is not merely idea creation. There are plenty of ideas in today’s world, and the risks of innovation do not result from the quality of ideas. Innovation requires rapid execution and rapid execution mitigates the risk of failure.
Create a Culture with a Bias, Toward Action
Successful innovation starts with creating a culture that has a bias toward action and rewards execution. Instead of having one small team or department tasked with innovation, it should be part of an organization’s culture. Remember that action begets more action, and idea creation only begets more ideas.
While careful planning is important, at some point it is necessary to stop the creativity process and focus on execution, even when an idea is not perfect. Executing and acting on an idea will naturally help the idea evolve.
In the book “Making Ideas Happen,” Scott Belsky offers great advice on how to create a culture based on action, showing how creativity and productivity are linked. Since innovation is a numbers game, truly game-changing ideas often come from trial and error. 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 nag 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. When you have an idea, you must act on it quickly while your team is excited about it. Without action, this initial energy will deteriorate. As people act, their energy will be sustained by the progress they make 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 affect 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. Find ways to keep all members of your team, even those not actively executing aspects of the project, engaged in the process.
If an organization repeatedly develops new ideas but delays implementing them, resentment towards new projects can creep in among team members who may feel that any energy spent on brainstorming will be wasted. This type of atmosphere will not inspire innovation. Remember that acting on ideas helps inspire commitment from others.
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 discover 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.
While there are many benefits to quickly acting on ideas, one of the potential costs is not having time to fully vet all the details. You will experience missteps; be ready to address these items quickly. Build a culture that reacts in a constructive way to changes in direction or adjustments in the plan, and acknowledge those that experience additional pressure or stress due to these challenges.
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 require a test of commitment. Breaking through these challenges is critical. When you are committed to your idea, others in the organization will follow.
Innovation is not about having a list of great ideas; it’s about putting those ideas into action. By implementing ideas, you will encourage more idea generation, see the potential flaws in your theory, have the opportunity to change your approach and achieve true innovation.