The Ideas Problem

by Kevin McFarthing

Ideas are the problem. I suspect many of you have heard this statement as often as I have.  It’s usually translated as “we don’t have enough ideas”. Yet when you dig beneath the surface, you find that the bald statement isn’t always as it first appears.

In this article, I’d like to offer some different translations of “Ideas are the problem”.

OUR STRATEGY ISN’T CLEAR

Ideally innovation supports the achievement of a strategic plan. It’s often a crucial part of delivering the growth promised by the strategy.  So, when the strategy isn’t clear to either the leadership team or the rest of the business, it’s much more difficult to understand how a new idea can fit into the future direction of the organization.

When the answers come back to the call for new ideas, they’re often all over the place, because the boundaries and targets haven’t been communicated. And the reason why that happens is that the strategy isn’t clear.

WE SAY WE WANT NEW BUSINESS BUT WE DON’T REALLY KNOW

“We want to disrupt the market place”. But in reality, all the time and effort is spent on growing the existing business, so ideas for new opportunities away from the status quo languish in the idea dungeon. Unless the company embraces an ambidextrous organizational approach, the imprisonment will continue.

IT’S ABOUT EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

Many so-called innovation initiatives start with a call for new ideas from employees. This comes from a genuine wish to seek ideas, but also a desire to engage people in the future of the business. The aim may be laudable, but often the execution makes the situation worse due to a lack of follow through to implementation. So, the next time there’s a call for ideas, guess what happens.

IDEAS ARE POORLY DESCRIBED AND UNDERSTOOD

There’s a world of difference between a brief description of an idea – “we should launch a product that (insert function), enabling customers to (insert benefit)” – and a concept that has been validated commercially and technically.

Firstly, it’s much more difficult to generate a common understanding across all the decision makers about what the idea actually means.  Secondly, attractive numbers make a world of difference to the collective level of enthusiasm.  Finally, the process of idea validation clarifies so much about the target customer, the required technology and the route to market.

One reason that idea validation doesn’t happen as often as it should is…

WE DON’T HAVE THE TIME

The urgent often gets in the way of the important. There are fires to fight, competitors challenging hard, supply issues, regulatory compliance, targets to meet etc.  Innovation that won’t help with the next quarter’s numbers – or even make them worse – often takes a back seat.

This may sound simplistic, but the time must be found, diaries must contain pre-booked time for innovation to progress. Otherwise ideas will remain as simple statements, not validated, growing old and irrelevant while others capture the opportunity.

WE CAN’T DECIDE

Many companies are organized in a way that makes it tough for innovation to work across functions and divisions. Decisions take time to progress through the corporate morass. Other leadership teams are inherently indecisive, and avoid difficult decisions by delaying them.

This can be fatal to new ideas, particularly when pursuing them means something has to change in the business.

OUR PORTFOLIO IS FULL

If we say “yes” to every new small idea that comes along; to every short-term product improvement; to every cost saving from changing ingredients or components; then suddenly all the R&D resource is committed. There is no time to validate new ideas or even start new breakthrough initiatives that most likely will need a lot of resource.

WE DON’T LIKE IDEAS FROM OUTSIDE

Open Innovation can bring ideas, technologies and new routes to market from outside the company. It can be blocked by NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome.  The ideas exist and are accessible, but remain unexploited, because the company doesn’t possess the self-confidence and structures to bring in external ideas.

BUT FINALLY…

If you have a clear strategy, including an ambidextrous approach to new business; your employees are fully engaged and contribute regularly; you have a great way to describe and validate new ideas with enough time to do it properly; you’re decisive; your portfolio is balanced; you welcome ideas no matter what the source; and you still don’t have enough good ideas; then ideas really are your problem.

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions and also has experience in life sciences. Follow @InnovationFixer

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