Cold Case Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Cold Case Innovation
I recently was listening to the news from FranceInfo Radio in an attempt to hone my French language skills and I was struck by an intense discussion about what the French call l’affaire Gregoire, an unsolved case involving the tragic death of a young boy named Gregory in Dijon, France in 1984. Amidst new revelations, the commentator referred to the case as a “cold case” and spoke about how the police in Dijon had four full-time investigators working on over 1,000 cold cases. I began to wonder what those investigators did on a daily basis in terms of what were their daily routines and how did they structure their work efforts.

I do not watch crime-related shows on television, so much of this represented new thinking for me. For example, how did the investigators make sure that they stayed focused on all of the cases and did not put too much emphasis on one versus the other?  How did they take new information and apply it to an older case? How did they know what to look for in terms of new information? With so many open cases, how did they even know where to start each day in terms of their analysis? In the case of l’affaire Gregoire, new handwriting analysis techniques applied to some threatening letters sent to the family in 1983 resulted in the implication of a great Aunt and Uncle in the death.

As I thought about cold cases, my mind wandered to the innovation space and I began to think about how a cold case approach could help the innovation practitioner in terms of handling innovation initiatives that were no longer active.

Most of us manage innovation initiatives in a spreadsheet or database form, using filters and tags to keep track of the status of each innovation. What I have found is that the list grows larger and larger over time, and because it is so difficult to find a truly innovative idea, the list of ideas that were examined then abandoned is often very long, while the list of promising or active initiatives is shorter and shorter. This is also true because of the costs involved in pursuing an active innovation initiative. This long list of inactive initiatives is often abandoned, never to be reviewed again.

In the innovation field we often focus on shiny, new initiatives and thus do not think that there is value in going back over ground that has been reviewed in the past. However, if we take a cold case-inspired approach to this list, we might come up with an alternative method for handling these older ideas.

An innovator could start a recurring process in which he or she would take each of the older innovation ideas through a set of questions to determine if anything had changed that would render those ideas relevant for a current challenge.

This process could occur quarterly, every six months, or annually, depending on how much time the innovator has to invest in the work. The set of questions could be as follows:

  1. Have any of the fundamental assumptions concerning the technology of the original idea changed? For example, if the original idea used a database as part of its analysis, is there a new and broader data set that could be used for the innovation work?  Or is there a faster database engine that could be used to crunch the data?
  2. Have there been any changes concerning the sponsor of the initiative? For example, was there a change in leadership in a position of influence over there project where a new executive might be more favorable to the idea than the previous sponsor?
  3. Has the problem that the initiative sought to solve changed? For example, if an innovation targeted cost cutting through process improvement and a company’s most recent results showed a worsening cost model, then the original idea may become relevant again.
  4. Is there a new technology that could complement the original idea in a way that makes it more effective and thus relevant? For example, there may be a new software application that when added to the original idea makes it much more effective, such as a better speech recognition engine to enhance an artificial intelligence innovation.
  5. Could the original idea be used to solve a new problem that is different from the one that it was originally created to tackle? For example, an innovation that originally targeted process improvements for inventory management (reducing costs) may actually be more applicable to a sales process (increasing revenue).

How one looks at these questions should depend on whether the original idea failed because of a weakness in one of these areas, such as if a sponsor for the initiative was not supportive of the original idea. There may also be many more questions that one could add to this list depending on how deep an analysis one wants to take of the older ideas.

The innovator would need to strike a balance between depth and speed based on the number of older ideas to review and the amount of time he or she must invest in active innovation initiatives. Nonetheless, this approach has the potential to create a new source of innovation ideas by leveraging past work and applying new criteria to those old ideas.

This approach could also apply to a sales process in terms of reviewing old opportunities periodically to see if anything had changed in these opportunities that would warrant a re-examination of their details.

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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