Mistake 2: Failing to define the scope of an innovation activity

It’s a familiar scene.  An executive tells a team to bring him or her some new innovation.  The team stands up, salutes and gets busy thinking up new ideas.  But a challenge emerges.  What, exactly, is the extent of the edict?  Should the new innovation be a product, service or business model?  Should it be incremental or disruptive?  Delivered next year or in three years time?  Without clear scope, teams follow one of two paths to develop scope.  They either impose a set of conditions on themselves and move ahead, or they stop and wait for someone to dictate scope to them.  Both are dangerous outcomes.

If the team assigns its own scope, more often than not they will define a scope more restrictive than the executive team expected or desired.  The team is more likely to constrain itself by defining its scope as known markets, known technologies, a short delivery timeframe and so forth.  Ideas that emerge from a team with a narrow scope are often incremental at best.  On the other side of the spectrum, teams that have no scope – starting with “a blank sheet of paper” so to speak – often flounder because there are no definitive boundaries.  They literally “boil the ocean” and rarely arrive at a solution.

Contrary to expectations

What’s interesting about this mistake is that it runs contrary to expectations.  Many of us believe that a “blank sheet” as a starting point is the way good innovation happens.  However, if you’ve ever had writer’s block staring at a blank sheet of paper, you understand that sometimes a bit of scope and definition helps a team succeed.  David Ogilvy, the renown ad man, is quoted as saying “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”.  What he meant was that within a clearly defined scope or framework, he could exercise his creativity most effectively, focusing on what matters and using the scope or boundaries as points of departure.

When an executive sends a team off to innovate with a “blank sheet of paper” approach, he or she may think they are doing the team a favor, and furthering the cause of innovation, when in fact they have created a difficult and often insurmountable challenge.  Good innovation happens within the context of tight scope.

Corrective actions

If you have a team or initiative that’s faced with developing a new product or service, start by defining the objectives, that is, what the deliverable might look like.  Is the deliverable meant to be a disruptive concept or incremental change to existing products or services?  Is the outcome meant to be a product, a service, a business model or some other outcome?  Next, define boundary or scope conditions.  For example, should the team rely on existing technologies or scan for new ones? Rely on internal capabilities or partner with external organizations?  Deliver a product in 3 years or 5 years?  With a handful of criteria, you’ve established points that are definitive for the team and become starting points and points of departure.   I like to think of these constraints as degrees of freedom.  In some attributes or characteristics, you may provide only one or two degrees of freedom for consideration, while in other attributes you provide an unlimited range of freedom.  When everything is unbound, it is hard to identify a place to start.

Tools and Techniques

For our clients, we develop an innovation “Charter” before every initiative or project, which includes:

  • Business goals
  • Anticipated customer needs
  • Project objectives
  • Scoping conditions

If we can reach agreement with the innovation team and sponsors on this document and these criteria, we have a winning definition for a new project which becomes the reference point for future activity.


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