Don’t Let Organizational Processes Drag Down a Great Idea

by Donna Sturgess

Editor’s note: In this series, we share personal stories from business leaders in a new book by Luis Solis; Innovation Alchemists: what every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer

Know the Difference

Don’t let organizational processes drag down a great idea

At one point in my career, I was the commercial head of a large portfolio of oral care brands, competing in a hyper-competitive market. When I took over the business U.S. sales were  -7% and declining fast. Two years later, the portfolio sales were +10%. One of the primary reasons for the business turnaround was the creation of a strong innovation pipeline that made the brand strategies vivid in the marketplace.

Crushing Cost Cutting

Several months after joining the team, a Marketing Director came into a meeting and as he placed a carton on the table he said, “Have you seen this?” It was a toothpaste carton that looked like it was a reject from the manufacturing line. Sadly, it was not.  Worse, it was the carton just introduced to hold our high-selling item. The carton’s flimsiness was the result of a decision made in operations to reduce costs. The business was under tremendous pressure at the time and someone, somewhere, thought this was the right decision to reduce the amount of carton board. I later learned the operations team believed the consumer (and apparently Marketing) would not notice the carton change. What they did not understand was how consumer perception and the choice to buy at the retail shelf are dominated by our non-conscious decision-making processes (emotion and desire) rather than by our conscious decision-making processes (rational need). The change to the structure and printing of that carton made a very big difference to the perception of the brand, albeit no difference to the function of a carton for a tube of toothpaste. It took months to convert back to the original carton.

Protect the Idea

I was startled that the commercial team had not been made aware of, or participated in, such a significant product decision. But the decision-making web in a large corporation is the nemesis of the innovator, and to bring remarkable innovation through to the marketplace one has to be masterful at ushering, pushing and pulling innovation through the complex system of business decisions. The name of the game leaders must play is, “Protect the Idea.” The winner is the one who can maintain the integrity of the original idea through the multitude of decisions during its R&D development, process stage-gating, budgeting, packaging creation, marketing and sales development as well as the many, many meetings that offer endless opportunities to redefine an idea on the basis of cost, impact, strategy and sales–whether you are in the room or not.

Don’t Dull Down

Gravity pulls and tugs at brilliant ideas to bring them into the organization’s center of capabilities and competencies rather than the other way around. I believe this behavior produces a dulling down of ideas to meet the organization’s abilities and is no doubt one of the reasons the market success rate of new products is so abysmal. What starts out in the concept stage as a remarkable idea that customers will talk about can very slowly be drawn into the company’s operating comfort zone, typically reducing the idea down to become the next incremental innovation that nobody will talk about. And that’s a big difference. It’s a big difference in customer value and a big difference in business success if your goal is to generate double-digit growth. And if your goal isn’t to produce double-digit growth, then you have the wrong outlook on the power of innovation!

Novelty Creates Excitement

Marketers and innovators must rise against this force and create internal excitement for ideas just as you will have to do when the time comes to launch them.  Think of it as practice. Most of the emotional heat a great idea revenues to traverse the operation comes from its originality. The commercial value of an idea stems from its originality and its newness. Novelty excites internal stakeholders and customers alike. In that moment of peak excitement and organizational enthusiasm for an idea when the whispers ask, “Can we really do it?” you need to set the goals and challenge the team to meet them.

You have a powerful story to tell when a fuller expression of the original elements of the idea can be articulated at the time an innovation is being presented for product development and funding. Showing the innovation in end-stage communication examples is more important than describing the concept when you want the people across the organization to understand the essence of an idea that must be rigorously protected if the idea is going to reach its full revenue potential. Simply creating these materials focuses the collective minds of the team to articulate the original idea into something meaningful to sell.

Solidifying the Idea

To propel an idea through the organization you have to change it from a gas into a solid. The concept words we use and the product briefs we write to describe innovations float through the atmosphere of the company, allowing everyone it lands on to translate the idea. A solid expression of the final commercial product on the other hand is concrete and people in all areas of the company find it easier to understanding and make the right decisions as it advances. This is more than creating a prototype, it means inserting key elements of the commercial launch thinking earlier into the innovation process and integrating, innovation, marketing, packaging and R&D together to define the idea in launch terms. By rearranging the way the work is done and inserting a clear expression of the selling proposition into the early idea phase, not only does the business understand the idea with great clarity, but prioritization among projects also becomes decidedly easier. If you think rearranging to your approach in this way seems hard or time consuming, consider the ultimate cost of turning remarkable ideas into average.
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Donna Sturgess is the President and Co-founder of Buyology Inc and former Global Head of Innovation for GlaxoSmithKline. She is also Executive in Residence at Carnegie Mellon University. Her latest book is Eyeballs Out: How To Step Into Another World, Discover New Ideas, and Make Your Business Thrive. Follow on Twitter: @donnasturgess