You Don't Need More Innovation Ideas!

by Tim Kastelle

You Don't Need More Innovation IdeasScott Berkun let out the secret of innovation in an outstanding blog post. It’s a secret that Rowan Gibson tried to let out of the bag recently, and so did Braden Kelley here on Blogging Innovation. I’ve tried to tell you about it too, using both analogies and statistics. The secret idea of innovation is this:

You don’t need any more new ideas.

Here is Berkun on the what we really need:

“If there’s any secret to be derived from Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or any of the dozens of people who often have the name innovator next to their names, is the diversity of talents they had to posses, or acquire, to overcome the wide range of challenges in converting their ideas into successful businesses.”

That’s it. The problem is executing your ideas. Here’s an example – yesterday I talked about mousetraps – here are some interesting stats.

The patent for the flip-trap mousetrap design was filed in 1899. That’s a better mousetrap, right? We’re still using that design over 110 years later, so it’s probably pretty good. And yet, since 1899, the US Patent Office has granted over 4400 mousetrap patents. They receive more than 400 new mousetrap patents every year. So there’s no shortage of ideas. But fewer than 20 mousetrap designs have led to products that have actually made money. The problem in innovation is executing your new idea, and getting it to spread.

There is so much effort put into improving innovation by generating more ideas. This isn’t necessarily wasted effort, but it’s not the smartest use of resources. My MBA students evaluated innovation within their firms:

“This approach is flawed, and my MBA students demonstrated why. They came from a wide range of organizations – huge multinationals, small start-ups, government departments, and educational institutions. Despite these different backgrounds, their findings were remarkably consistent – only 3 of the 60 organizations that they work in are ideas-poor. The other 57 (that’s 95%!) have problems with either selecting or diffusing ideas.”

Here’s more from Berkun:

“The closest thing to a real secret is this: In my years studying and teaching all things innovation, there’s one fact that’s the hardest for people to swallow and it goes as follows – To invent or create is to take a bet against the unknown. No matter what you do, you are still betting you can do well in the face of many things that are out of your control. Don’t like that? Don’t want uncertainty? Then do something else. Comfort with risk and uncertainty is the real secret. Or at least acceptance of the fact you can work your ass off for uncertain rewards.”

Where does this leave us? Here are some conclusions:

  • If you’re going to get some help to improve innovation at your firm, don’t focus on generating ideas. Get help on selecting ideas, or on getting them to spread. Those are the hard parts.
  • Innovation is a bet – you’re betting that your new idea will work better, that it will meet needs, that it will fit into the value network. All of these things have to happen for your innovation to work. Like Berkun says, this is a leap into uncertainty.
  • Most of the innovation problems that organizations face are problems with innovation diffusion – the challenge is to get your new ideas to spread.

The new idea that I’d like you to accept is that you don’t need any more new ideas. Instead of generating more ideas, let’s develop some plans for getting better at executing our ideas. That seems like a good idea heading into the new year, doesn’t it?

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.