Important Innovation... Or Lipstick on a Pig?

by Patrick Stroh
Mercury Business Advisors

All organizations want to foster innovation. After all, it's how we grow, improve, delight our customers, and—yes—keep getting paid. In today's rapidly changing global landscape, our ability to come up with new ideas is what keeps us relevant. Organizations are augmenting their business value proposition on average every three to five years, and we can do that only with a focus on and widespread commitment to the I-word. Yet, all innovations are not created equal. So, how to separate the "WOW!" from the "Eh, not now"?

This is a question that confounds many leaders. And the answer is (ironically) to ask more questions.

When I talk with organizations about innovation, I ask them to “define what important innovation means to you.” It sounds pretty basic, but you'd be amazed at how few people can answer it.

The truth is, if you don't have a measuring stick to evaluate important ideas from so-so ideas or even poor ones, then it's hard to expect your employees and others to innovate. Every company needs a set of questions and a repeatable method for considering innovations. It's the answers to these questions that will determine which ideas drive innovation impact faster—and which ones are just noise.

So what types of questions should you ask? Well, whether you're creating or evaluating the innovation ideas or projects, it's important to start with the following three overarching queries:

  1. Is the idea or project core to your value proposition?
  2. Is it either big or leverageable?
  3. Will it take priority?

These three questions can help you determine which ideas are worth pursuing and which ones just sound interesting. Still, you need to go deeper into each one if you're seeking to truly create value in your business. Here are some questions to guide that deeper dive as you decide whether something is an important innovation—or just lipstick on a pig:

Is the idea or project core to your value proposition?

  • If it isn't core to your value proposition, why would you want to spend resources on it?
  • Are you innovating just to say you are trying something new?
  • Is there a market and customers for this? (It can be a new market, of course, but define it.)
  • Would we be willing to add or divert existing, core business sales and marketing dollars to promote this new product/service?
  • How will you launch and service this offering with existing and new customers?

Is it either big or leverageable?

  • Is this a big opportunity in market size?
  • Is this a key area or opportunity for our industry or market?
  • Is this a highly leveraged initiative that has cumulative impacts across our value proposition?
  • Do we have suppliers or partners that could do this for us already?
  • What is the impact if we don't do this?

Will it take priority?

  • Would I stop other priorities that we are currently working on to take on this initiative?
  • What would our board of directors or customers say if they knew this was moving to the top of the priority list?
  • Considering our current operating plan, can we execute on this new initiative?
  • Will this initiative survive the resource and implementation gauntlets in our organization?

Keep in mind that these are meant to be clarifying questions, not disqualifying ones. Clarifying questions keep digging into the idea with positive intent. You are digging to find the sweet spot, the spot where the idea can be unleashed and add value to your organization. If you are asking questions in a disqualifying manner, you are questioning as a means of judging before fully understanding.

If you take a “judging” approach, you'll be seen as putting up barriers, and your efforts to encourage innovation will be poorly received. Ask questions and do due diligence, but have a mantra of finding ways to 'get to yes'! And don't make these questions a secret. Tell employees how you evaluate ideas. Tell them the rules to the game so they can play—and play to win for all. iBi

Patrick Stroh is president of Mercury Business Advisors, providing management advisory services in business strategy, innovation, and product development, and author of Advancing Innovation: Galvanizing, Enabling & Measuring for Innovation Value! and Business Strategy: Plan, Execute, Win! He serves on the board of directors for the Institute of Management Accountants and was also appointed as a fellow in Palladium's Positive Impact Research Institute.

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