Mistake 12: Believing innovation begins with idea generation

I have this recurring nightmare – perhaps you have one that is similar.  It’s 8am, I’ve overslept and am rushing to a math class.  As I enter the classroom I remember that the class will be taking the final exam, and I haven’t prepared.  I dash to my desk, scan the textbook for a few miserable minutes and then wing the exam.  Usually I wake up with a pounding heart, only to realize it was just a dream.  Strangely enough, many of my clients live this dream regularly, when they kick off innovation projects.  That’s because they believe that innovation starts with idea generation.  Over two years ago I wrote a blog post entitled Innovation doesn’t start with Idea Generation, which is still timely today.

Preparation and Context

Idea generation is a valuable component of any innovation activity.  After all, without ideas, is it really “innovation”?  But what many teams fail to realize is that starting innovation at idea generation is like arriving at the exam without studying.  Preparation is vital to good idea generation.  A team should understand the scope of the needs and opportunities.  The team should evaluate trends and the evolution of markets and customer segments.  The team should understand customer wants and needs.  With this context in mind, idea generation can often become solution generation.  Without the context or understanding of trends or customer needs, ideas are merely internal opinions about the future needs and conditions of the customer.

What’s worse, many innovation team members show up at the idea generation session with wildly different preparation and expectations.  Some have been invited through an email and have had no prior preparation.  Some have years of experience in the specific market or technology, but don’t understand customer needs.  One or two may understand customer needs but not the history of the product line or offering.  This is when idea generation becomes more akin to “herding cats” – when everyone has a unique perspective and opinion and none of those perspectives are shared.

Zero to Sixty in…

Unlike a sports car that can accelerate to great speeds in very little time, and perform flawlessly, innovation teams need more time and preparation to perform at peak output where innovation and especially idea generation is concerned.  The teams need to understand the “context” – scope, trends and customer needs – which help frame the idea generation.  They need to understand the risk profiles and potential outcomes – disruptive products or incremental services – that may be acceptable.  They need a shared, common perspective and understanding when they start, otherwise everyone brings their own, unique perspective and understanding to bear.  When preparation and context are lacking, incremental ideas are always preferable to disruptive ideas, since the lowest common denominator is what everyone can agree to.

Context, Preparation, Facilitation and Tool Selection

When done well, idea generation is a thing of beauty.  When done poorly, it’s about as frustrating an exercise as can be imagined.  No wonder many studies find that people are better at generating ideas alone than in groups.  Combining several dysfunctional points of view in one poorly organized setting can never be successful!  There are four key components to getting idea generation right – the first two are covered here:  developing the context for idea generation and carefully preparing the participants prior to the event.  The other two components, good facilitation and proper tool selection, we’ll cover in a subsequent post.


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