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Dec 9, 2020

So many really good ideas never see the light of day. They’re either never brought to the table or, if they are, they are shot down as soon as they rear their head. Why? 

We all know that we need to create dynamic businesses that move with the times, as well as keep current with the changing environment and market and customer needs. And yet while many organizations talk about the importance of innovation, the reality is that they are destroying it.

The “Off Strategy” Idea

When I worked at a mobile operator, I came up with an idea that was killed. A year later, another company ran with a similar idea, which ended up becoming Snapchat! 

Here’s what happened: Tasked with “innovating,” we were given a month to come up with some new propositions. Differentiation between mobile operators was getting more difficult, the customer proposition was becoming commoditized, and the pressure was on.

I had been carrying out some research on picture messaging, watching and talking to people who were taking pictures on their phones and trying to understand why they did not send them. What I discovered  was that people were taking photos that they wanted to share with just one person, not to be shown to anyone else. Brilliant, I thought: Let’s make the photo disappear once it has been opened by that one recipient!

Excited, I presented my idea, but it was quickly shot down. “Not on strategy,” I was told. They were looking for ideas in specific areas, and mine just didn’t fit. Well, I wish they had told me the parameters earlier. Afterward, my will to find more new opportunities was dashed, so soon after, I left the company. 

What I learned is that goals need to be shared, company strategy and success metrics communicated, so that intrapreneurs know the boundaries in which to harness their energy. 

Too Many Hoops

Think back to the last time you had a conversation with someone who had an idea. You tried to encourage them to pursue it, but then a big sigh ensued. It all felt like too much effort. 

What happens in your organization? How do people propose a new idea? Is there a process for this? How easy is that process to get through? Is everyone able to suggest ideas? It’s important not only having a way for everyone to propose ideas but easing the process to give early ideas a chance.

Imagine that an early validated idea has been presented for approval to move to the next stage. At this point, there is some evidence that the problem, need, or desire exists, and there seems to be an opportunity to provide something better than what’s already available. So the decision now is whether to invest a small amount of money and time to move to the next stage (investing incrementally is far more cost effective than committing large sums up front). 

This next stage will likely entail carrying out more extensive research. But what do companies do instead? They ask for a business case, which will absolutely kill the idea! That’s because it is too early to gather any of the assumptions that underpin the business case numbers. After all, we don’t even know what the solution looks like at this point.   

The F Word

No one wants to be branded a failure, a loser, a waster of time and energy! So it is easier for many people to keep quiet than to pipe up and say that they have an idea. All which is to say that we need to change how we perceive failure.

There are so many quotes from leading and successful innovators about this: that failure is the most important part of innovation; that if things aren’t failing, you’re not innovating enough; that the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate; that, as Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Failing is part of learning. Through every failure, we learn more about our customers, and as long as those insights are shared across the business, we will get there in the end. The larger point is that it helps to test out many ideas early so you can fail early, learn, and move on. It goes back to a mantra of mine: “Test before you invest.”  

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