Your Innovation Confidence Course

by Jeffrey Phillips

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Recently I read a nice article in Inc Magazine about 10 Innovation Killers. The author refers to a lot of factors that stymie innovation, including many of the usual suspects:

  • holding a brainstorm and then doing nothing
  • sustaining a fear of failure
  • thinking innovation is something the technology guys do

One of the factors that caught my eye also got me thinking, however. That factor was “create an obstacle course for ideas”.  Here the author was talking about making it difficult for people to work on ideas or making the process difficult.  Now, being a natural contrarian (I know, strange attribute for an innovator) I thought:  the only ideas that matter are those that can make it through a number of hoops and hurdles, internal and external.  What’s wrong with an obstacle course? Shouldn’t the best ideas be the result of an obstacle course?

And then I remembered that my father, once and always a Marine, never referred to these as obstacle courses, but “confidence courses”.

Young marines are put through an arduous obstacle course to prepare them for obstacles they may encounter in warfare, but the purpose of the course is to build confidence and teamwork. In the same way, corporate innovators should expect their ideas to compete for time, attention and resources – a corporate obstacle course – but they need to know how to guide ideas through this course effectively. What we need, it seems, are people who are versed in running the obstacle courses, who understand the issues and challenges that ideas are likely to face, and know how to get over, around or through them. Ideas, by themselves, are never going to make it through an obstacle course.  People who don’t understand the obstacles aren’t going to be able to guide ideas through the course. Companies that don’t define the course and present unusual or unexpected obstacles won’t be able to sustain innovation.

Two important factors

What we need is not to think of innovation as a lonely idea facing a huge set of obstacles. Rather, what we need is either 1) a clearly defined path for ideas to follow that will assess, develop and validate ideas effectively or 2) confident idea partners who are experienced in running the obstacle course. Frankly, the first alternative sounds wonderful:  a virtual automated assembly line for ideas. However, this magical process doesn’t and won’t exist, because ideas by themselves have little momentum and without a defined pathway and workflow simply won’t get to market, much less attract the resources to reach product or service development.

Obstacle or Confidence?

Every new idea, product or service, whether it is based on existing capabilities or introduces new solutions or technologies, faces an obstacle course.  If creating new, valuable products and services were easy, then everyone would be a millionaire. The fact is, it is difficult to create even incremental new products and services. Every new product or service will face an obstacle course:  competing priorities, limited bandwidth, and resources, conflicting goals.  The question is: Will the ideas have confident mentors or supporters who can move through the obstacles and address important questions?

The answer to this is:  it depends. Ideas and products that are very similar to existing products and services will face fewer hurdles and have more support to go through the evaluation and product development process. New, interesting or divergent ideas will face larger hurdles and find that few people know how to navigate the process, or even that the process doesn’t exist. This is why so few new, interesting ideas become new products or services.

People who have been through the obstacle course and know how to navigate the barriers and hurdles have confidence and can accelerate even disruptive ideas through the course. We don’t need to worry about creating barriers to ideas – many exist for good reasons. What we need to do is create confident people who understand the pathways and obstacles and who have the confidence to move through the appropriate decisions and gates.

Consistent Course / Experienced Guides

This means there are at least two important factors that must be implemented to accelerate good ideas to market.  The first is that there is some consistency to the obstacle course. That is, ideas must clear certain thresholds or hurdles, and those remain reasonably consistent, not changing with the whims of decision makers. The second is that there are people who understand the reasonable and consistent hurdles or obstacles and can find ways over, through or around them, or who can invent an entirely new way to move through the path.  These are experienced, confident people who’ve been there and done that before.

Ideas need to – in fact must face – reasonable, consistent obstacles within your decision-making process, because the products and services they’ll become will face obstacles and objections in the marketplace. We can’t create a frictionless path for ideas inside the organization any more than we can create an objection-less product for customers. What we can do is define the path, ensure the obstacles are well-defined and reasonable for the variety and range of ideas and support the ideas with people who have been through the obstacle course before. If ideas can make it through an internal confidence course scale to the value and impact of the idea, then they can make it in the “real world”.

Idea Obstacle Courses

In fact the idea of an idea obstacle course – or confidence course – is brilliant. If an organization wants to innovate, and recognizes the issues and challenges associated with innovation and acceptance of new products in the market, it will create a defined set of hurdles, obstacles, and challenges that ideas must meet or achieve. Further, it will train people to be able to understand and clear the obstacles, giving them confidence that they and their ideas can move through the course. We don’t want a frictionless system, which means the ideas won’t encounter real world objections, but equally we can’t leave the maturation and testing process for ideas to random chance.

What we need is a defined obstacle course for ideas, complete with defined objections and hurdles, “drill instructors” who push teams to move through the course at speed, and experienced guides who have been through the course before. Then, and only then, can we say that we have a good pipeline and process for ideas.

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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