The Wow, the How, and Incubating Big Ideas

by Mark Payne

This is the fourth article in a series on how to transform innovation success rates, adapted from the new innovation playbook How to Kill a Unicorn by Fahrenheit 212 founder Mark Payne.

Previously on Innovation Excellence, we shared insights on how to build ideas that disrupt the market without unduly disrupting your company in The Cloud, the Fence, and the Stretch Factor.

If you’re a hobbit embarking on an epic adventure on a movie screen, it’s okay to begin the journey with bare feet, a loaf of bread, and a pocketknife, and not worry about how you’ll slay the dragon until you’re staring it in the face. But innovation doesn’t work that way. You can’t create real impact by ignoring issues that may upend a project.

At Fahrenheit 212, we’ve spent years looking not just at what goes right when all the pieces come together in a successful innovation, but also at what goes wrong when high-potential ideas come undone. One pattern we see repeated over and over again in failed innovation projects is pouring a lot of time into worrying about “the wow” and not enough into “the how.”

That’s why we shape innovation projects to make sure we stare down the toughest questions early on. With this approach, you’re a lot less likely to end up with your eyebrows singed, lamenting the death of your big idea as the credits roll.

THE WOW AND THE HOW

“The wow” is the truly big, differentiated idea that opens up valuable new benefits and possibilities for customers and company alike. It excites you as an innovator and delights your consumers. It fills a gap in the market. Maybe it opens a whole new category of products or services, topples an existing paradigm, or fixes something in life that just seems wrong.

It all looks great. Until “the how” comes along and bites you.

“The how” is shorthand for a whole host of vital questions:

  • How will this product or service actually do what we say it does?
  • How can we make it?
  • How much will it cost to make it?
  • How will we get it to market?
  • How will it meet necessary requirements, such as regulatory or retailer?
  • How will it make money?
  • How will it strengthen the company’s competitive position?
  • How will we sell this to management or investors to invest in it?

If you’re pursuing innovation on your own, worrying about the wow without the how can spark some wild ideas, however unfeasible, and can do little harm, as it puts only your own time at risk. But if you’re doing it in a commercial context on behalf of your employer, your investors, or, in our case, paying clients, it’s irresponsible. A breakthrough idea that isn’t viable as a business isn’t actually a great idea – it’s just a diversion, one that can waste valuable time and drain limited resources. The number of innovation projects that achieve a wow but get fatally lanced on the how is staggering.

HOW TO SLAY YOUR DRAGONS

When we spot a situation where the how is likely to be particularly daunting, we find it’s massively helpful to essentially turn the typical innovation process upside-down: start with the tough questions of how, then work toward the wow that will excite the marketplace and create new demand.

This means starting the journey by addressing a two-sided problem that surfaces the hardest operational and financial realities of the business. It means teeing up the issues that will kill a project now, rather than discovering them later.

Leading with the how is not a new idea. But it seems to have been forgotten as a go-to source of ignition. User-centered innovation purists might argue that worrying about the question of how from day one inhibits creativity. But creativity loves a problem to solve. The trick is to make the problem of how a part of the goal and the process rather than a buzzkill at the back end.

INNOVATION MEETS INCUBATION

One of the most enlightening examples of innovators using the how as a springboard to innovation comes out of a firm called Design That Matters.

Increasing the availability of incubators to care for premature infants in developing markets can prevent thousands of infant deaths each year. Every so often, a well-meaning foundation steps in to address this by donating state-of-the-art incubators to poor villages in various parts of the world. For a few months, the lives of premature infants are saved, until the machine needs maintenance. But the villagers have neither the expertise nor the replacement parts to repair such sensitive equipment. So the machines go idle, becoming expensive, neglected monuments to good intentions gone wrong.

Through its fieldwork, the team at Design That Matters noticed that resourceful villagers in these small communities have a remarkable ability (and supply of parts) to keep old cars and trucks on the road for hundreds of thousands of miles. So they conceived a truly brilliant design solution: a new kind of incubator built entirely out of readily available car parts, serviceable by anyone who knows how to fix a car. The idea was featured in Time magazine as a testament to the power of design to change the world. All thanks to some smart innovators giving equal time to what the how can open up.

IDEAS BORN PREMATURELY

This ingenious piece of thinking about the how sounds like an amazing success story. And it almost was. But in the end, the auto parts incubator became a parable not only about how vital these how questions are, but also how many of these questions need to be solved for a visionary idea to come to fruition.

The auto parts design approach was a truly inspired answer to the question of how an incubator can be aligned with local capabilities to keep it working in the field in the long run. But a multitude of other critical how questions had been overlooked in staying so focused on the product: how to get medical equipment manufacturers interested in commercializing this machine, how to get it made, how to get it distributed, how to get in front of the right people in the health care ecosystems who make procurement decisions or allocate donor contributions?

Design That Matters CEO Timothy Prestero reflected in a TEDxTalk on the failure of the auto parts incubator to warm a single infant other than the baby placed in the prototype for the photograph in Time. He described the realization that the initiative failed to save a single baby’s life because the team had solved the issues of the user and the product, but not those of the business system that had to be navigated.

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

The lessons from the incubator story reinforce our belief that the wow and the how are each useless without the other, and the how is often the harder part to solve. A big part of success is bringing the right level of how to a given point in the process. In the early stages, you just need a sight line to how an idea could be done, could deliver on its promises, could be manufactured at scale, and could hit the profitability requirements attached to the endeavor. You can’t have all the answers, but even pinning down the questions is meaningful and can inform the solutions you shape.

As you move further down the track into the deeper phases of development and commercialization, the emphasis shifts from how something could be done to how it will be done. It’s an important distinction. And the more breakthrough an idea is relative to what the company has done before, the more important and more difficult those how questions will be. The how questions are undeniably hard. But relegating them to the back end of the journey often makes them unsolvable.

image credit: Bart

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Co-Founder and President of the innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212, Mark Payne has spearheaded innovation efforts that have created over $3Billion in revenue for Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurial emerging businesses and Private Equity firms. He is the architect of the firm’s unique ‘Money & Magic’ philosophy and a front line innovation practitioner. Find him @markf212

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