Unfuzzing the Front End of Innovation generates turnover

by Gijs van Wulfen

Unfuzzing the Front End of Innovation generates turnoverMany companies use the Stage-Gate Innovation Process, developed by Robert G. Cooper. It offers a great blueprint to structure the innovation process from the first idea evaluation until the introduction of the product. Each stage closes with a gateway for a go/no-go decision of the management. In practice the many gates are delaying the innovation process, and simplified versions have been developed for less complicated innovation projects.

The first stage covers the initial investigation of the innovation ideas. At the first gateway the question is: do we really have to pay attention to this? The assumption is that there are a lot of appealing innovative ideas readily available. That is exactly where we miss the boat. Appealing new ideas are not knocking at your door and do not appear either at the exact moment when you need them. The latest international research in The Economist shows that almost 60 per cent of all companies are not able to generate sufficient innovative ideas.

Ideas for new products and services can come from anywhere: from inside the company through research and development, marketing, sales, the call center or the online sales department; from top management, the responsible line managers and enthusiastic co-workers. They can also come from consumers, business-to-business clients, distribution partners, suppliers, consultants, research institutes, scientists and even from competitors. However, in practice, it is unclear where the innovation ideas should come from. The question about which criteria they should meet is also vague. Do you know who in your organization has new innovative ideas and what criteria they have to meet?

The lack of clarity in the beginning of the innovation process led to it being called the ‘fuzzy front end of innovation’. Cooper, added a ‘discovery stage’ before the first stage of his model in order to improve it. It is at this stage that ideas are discovered; thus, in advance of any decision to develop a product or service, the start of the innovation process is now divided into three steps, with a gateway at each step. In my new book Creating Innovative Products & Services however, I consider this phase – from the creation of the idea until a decision is made to develop the product concept – as one phase, with one team and one process. This enables you to gather speed, which is important as the world turns faster each day, and more internal support.

Many organizations spend too little money and time on the front end of the innovation process. Research shows that companies who spend more time and attention to the ideation phase:

  1. Speed up the development of a new product;
  2. Spend a greater part of their effort on projects which will lead to success;
  3. Create a positive influence in the organization;
  4. Increase the chance that the NPD program will meet the objectives.

A worldwide investigation by Arthur D. Little into the five best practices in innovation shows that more professional idea management has the greatest influence on the turnover of new products. It results in an increase in turnover of 7.2 per cent from new products.

The very first phase of the innovation process, the creation of innovative and appealing product, services or business model ideas, is therefore of the utmost importance.

So, you better start to ‘unfuzz’ your front end of innovation.

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Gijs van WulfenGijs van Wulfen leads ideation processes and is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. He is the author of Creating Innovative Products & Services, published by Gower.

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  1. Gijs,

    You offer good food for thought.

    Reflecting on the comment, “it is unclear where the innovation ideas should come from,” I can observe from my own experience that the introduction of capabilities that allow organizations to apply the principles and practices of social media have made it possible for these organizations to act upon the belief that ideas can, and should, come from anywhere—or, more to the point, from anybody.

    I sense that we’re in the midst of a sea change. As these capabilities help citizens in various parts of the world renegotiate their relationship with their governments (witness Egypt, for example), so, too, do these same capabilities enable members of an innovation community to redefine their relationship with their organization in terms of who defines the practice of innovation, including, at a fundamental level, who gets to participate.

    Carrying the analogy further, the stage gate process—aka “the funnel”—perhaps represents the earlier, dictatorial equivalent of an earlier mindset in which members exchange safety in the form of risk reduction for active participation in, and ownership of, the process of advancing and realizing ideas.

    Senior Community Manager, spigit

  2. Dear Doug,
    Great to read your comment. I also believe that every individual has a natural sense for innovation and that this should be fostered in all departments of a company. Nevertheless, in my view, even with highly innovative staffs it is not an easy task to track down those ideas that are meeting the set strategy criteria and objectives of a company and really bring the business forward.
    That is why I also favour to start with a concrete innovation brief and to work, within a short time-frame, with one innovation team that is made up out of members from various departments and backgrounds. This ensures not only a stronger innovation focus but also facilitates the transformation of the idea into business cases.
    Nevertheless ideas coming out of a social media approach could add valuable input for the innovation teams in the development phase.
    Regards, Ina
    Owner of IdeaKitchen

  3. Hi Gijs,

    Thanks for this post. It provides an opportunity to share some practices that are quite different from the traditional approaches and delivering significant results.

    Innovative ideas by nature will be different than what we are doing today. Anticipating how to process them is little like putting the cart before the horse. Most new ideas need to take shape in order to develop value – and that shape can only come from conversation, collaboration and the building of a business case that based on rigor. Having diversity in this process greatly ads to the richness of the ideas being developed, while the increased number of participants provides a division of labor to access expertise more immediately, accelerate tasking and secure deliverables.

    Another important diversity element is adding agility to your workflow in order to accommodate roles, statuses and events to make better sense of the “fuzziness” that is innate to the innovation front-end. This agility enables your process to multi-task and enables your managers to bind the right pathway and resources to an idea based on its (often unique) development need; rather than rigid automation tied to inflexible business rules.

    Because it takes people to innovate, not algorythms. Most great ideas don’t simply occur…they blossom thru the insight, co-creation and tasking of individuals. Succesfull outcome with enduring engagement occur better and faster, when the innovation eco-system enables right people at the right times with the right resources to pitch-in. Because most organizations are busy delivering on their existing business models, innovation processes have to be opportunistic – each step must be purposeful in advancing the idea to its next (natural) level.

    I hope this helps,


  4. We have to be careful not to confuse the idea generation process with the innovation development process. To be sure, you can’t have one without the other. And many progressive companies have added a formal idea generation process on to the front end of their Stage Gate process. But a Stage Gate process is fundamentally NOT an idea generation process.

    A Stage Gate process is an innovation development process. It is, fundamentally, a process to evaluate ideas that are already generated. It doesn’t ASSUME that there are a lot of appealing innovative ideas readily available. It EXISTS to evaluate ideas that are generated elsewhere — in an idea generation process. A Stage Gate process is critical to making sure that resources are working effectively and working on the right projects.

    You are talking about the idea generation process, and I agree with many of your statements regarding the idea generation process. I also agree with many of the comments made above — especially the ones that say that ideas should come from ANY and EVERY possible source. I do not, however, think that ideas should be limited to one team — especially if that team is made up only of leaders within the organization. It is my experience that a single team too often has a myopic view of the business — they tend to limit ideas to those similar to what has been done before — shunning or more often never even thinking of ideas that are truly innovative.

    Now, if your team is doing the first stage of EVALUATING ideas generated in the idea generation process…that’s another story. But then, you would really be talking about the first stage in the Stage Gate process — not the idea generation process.

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