Mistake 14: The fallacy of the “one idea”

The life of an innovation consultant often feels like the role Bill Murray played in Groundhog Day.  An OK movie if you haven’t seen it, but a really telling character portrayal.  In it Murray plays a TV reporter who is condemned to live the exact same day over and over again.  No matter what he tries to change, the next day he wakes up to the same unfolding events.

I often feel like my personal “Groundhog Day” in any innovation event is the moment an executive wants to know what the big idea is.

It’s always too soon to tell

There are a couple of reasons I am very uncomfortable with this request.  First, the request almost always happens far too early in the innovation process.  At a time when the team should be diverging – gathering more ideas and being more expansive – the executive is signalling it is time to rapidly converge.  The time scales and research necessary to do good innovation aren’t predictable.  Moving too quickly to convergent behavior, which is often more familiar, means the team may miss many good ideas.  Second, the request assumes the team has enough information to choose just one of tens or hundreds of ideas they’ve been considering.  Even a team that may be prepared to start converging is often juggling at least a dozen good ideas, and hasn’t yet assessed the ideas or discovered hidden issues or flaws.

Executives often don’t mean to impose these constraints.  Typically they are simply interested in the progress of the team, and asking about outcomes (ideas) is the simplest way to measure activity and results.  But what they don’t realize is that by asking for “an idea” they subtly impose the constraint that the team should have moved through divergence and convergence to select one idea.  Further, executives don’t realize how risky selecting and moving forward with just one idea can be.

Idea Mortality

As consistent research by PDMA, Booz Allen Hamilton and others (see graph on page 20) have demonstrated, ideas face a high “mortality” rate.  Selecting ideas too quickly or too early in the innovation process can mean selecting ideas that have undiscovered flaws, or already exist as products in the marketplace, or violate another firm’s intellectual property.  We always encourage our clients to retain several active ideas for a much longer period of time, far later in the process, than they might juggle multiple projects or initiatives.  That’s because there is so little experience managing ideas and identifying strengths and flaws, while many other internal initiatives can be modeled on past projects or activities.  Picking the “one” idea too early in the process often leads to incremental ideas at best, or nothing to implement once flaws are discovered.  Don’t down select to one idea too early, and don’t let executive exuberance lead you to rapid convergence when you should be diverging.

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