The Innovation Process
The innovation process is important for all businesses. Structure helps business creativity and innovation, as long as it’s so not constraining that innovation and entrepreneurial thinking become hard work.
I hope that this article helps you to think about how you’re innovating, how you’re capturing ideas, and how you’re taking them forward in your organization.
It walks through the innovation funnel, also known as the innovation filter, showing how your innovation processes can make the most of everybody’s ideas, help you decide which ones to take forward, and get a much higher success rate from your business innovation activities.
What is an innovation process and why do you need one?
Ideas are like butterflies. If we don’t capture them, they fly away, never to be seen again.
Without any process, there’s no way to harness and prioritize ideas. We risk investing time, money and energy in low potential initiatives, rather than backing the innoovations that are going to make the biggest difference.
The invisible mountain of unrealized potential gets bigger and bigger. Imagine how big that mountain of unused, high potential ideas might be in your business!
Not only are innovation processes important, but they’re also liberating. The thought of having an innovation process may feel structured and confining, at first. It’s about having just the right amount of structure, the right amount of process so that it’s not too bureaucratic, and so there aren’t too many hoops to jump through. Having some structure creates time and energy to focus on innovation.
Lack of innovation process contributes to innovation failure
Solverboard research shows that the three root causes of innovation failure are:
1. Lack of innovation process methodology
Lack of innovation process methodology means that the innovation process is inconsistent. It’s fragmented, poorly defined, and people aren’t measuring their innovation. When innovation isn’t properly defined, it’s therefore very hard to measure.
2. Lack of innovation process alignment
As a result of innovation not being properly defined and consequently hard to measure, this also means that there is a lack of alignment between innovation efforts and where the organization is heading.
3. Innovation needs to be integral to the day-to-day business
Having an innovation process aligns innovation to the business’ day-to-day activities. It saves time and money, and improves the success rates of any innovation initiative.
So, stop now and think about an example of a recent innovation that went smoothly, what were the success factors? Why did it go smoothly?
Now, think about something that didn’t get off the ground, or maybe it did but it didn’t succeed. Think about the barriers that were in place, considering what went right with your innovation and what didn’t go right?
Depending on which sort of example you’ve picked, now think about how typical these examples are of your innovation projects. Whilst having brilliantly managed innovation projects doesn’t guarantee positive results, it significantly enhances the probability of success. This is because you’ll do the right work, make sure that you’re solving the problem in the right way for customers, develop and test your ideas before you launch them.
What is an innovation funnel?
The innovation funnel, sometimes called the innovation filter, is the core of the innovation process.
The funnel looks like a beautifully smooth end-to-end process. However, in practice, projects move backwards and forwards through the funnel in iterative cycles.
As ideas move through the innovation funnel process, not all make it to the next stage. Some ideas won’t be as promising as first thought, others might need extra work or resource that you don’t want to commit to right now. The point is that the innovation process prevents all ideas moving forward so that you can prioritize and focus on the innovations that show the most promise.
Key principles of the innovation process
Key principles of the innovation process are:
- having ideas and capturing them
- assessing those ideas
- developing the ideas that you’ve chosen to progress. testing and the ones that have survived the development process
It is important that only just enough work happens at each stage of the innovation process to learn whether it’s worth progressing to the next phase.
Definition of stage-gates or decision-gates in the innovation process
Stage-gates or decision-gates are where one stage of the innovation process ends, and there is a ‘gate’ to go through to determine if work on the innovation should continue to the next stage.
People in the organization have ideas and capture them. Assessment takes place to decide which ideas to develop. Once these ideas have been developed, they go through a decision-gate, and the ones that make it are tested. Those that survive the test process progress to the launch phase.
The innovation funnel facilitates the selection and de-selection of ideas, avoiding wasted time and money. The innovation process helps to de-risk, accelerate and structure the innovation.
Main stages of the innovation process
The main stages of the innovation process are:
Stage 1 – Have ideas
The first stage is to come up with ideas to go into the beginning of your innovation process.
Stage 2 – Capture ideas
Capture all ideas and keep them in a single location, ready for the next stage.
Stage 3 – Assessment
Use your decision-making criteria to prioritize your innovations, based on their potential benefits and feasibility.
Stage 4 – Development
Strengthen your ideas, ready to test them out in a real-world or simulated environment.
Stage 5 – Test
See how your innovation works for your customers in practise, in a low risk, fast and effective way.
Stage 6 – Launch
Launch for real when your innovation is good enough to satisfy customer needs.
The fog of uncertainty in the innovation process
Innovators tend to move backwards and forwards through the different phases of the innovation process. As we learn something new, we might have to go back a step or even two before we can move forwards again. The result is often the fog of uncertainty, in innovation terms.
When we start on the innovation process we often think that we have got some clarity about where our innovation is going. As new information comes up, we often realize that it’s not as straightforward as we first thought, and the fog of uncertainty descends.
The solution is to move through that fog. It is important to keep trying new angles and problem-solving. Eventually, clarity will emerge. We’ve just got to keep going and understand that the fog of uncertainty is a normal part of any innovation process.
If you’ve ever facilitated or participated in an innovation sprint, you may know that around the middle of the sprint is often referred to as the groan zone. This is because for the first couple of days, teams usually think they’re doing really well and making great progress. Then, suddenly, reality hits and teams realize they’ve got a few things to figure out and that it’s not going to be quite as smooth as everybody first thought. They need to push on through to get to the other side. It’s the same, too, in any innovation process. We’ve got to persevere rather than give up, and understand that it’s a necessary part of the process and problem-solve our way through it.
The stages of the Innovation Funnel
Stage 1 – Have ideas
The first step of the innovation process is to have ideas. There is no innovation without the ideas that come in at the beginning of the funnel.
Sources of ideas can come internally. They could also be from the customers, the community, suppliers and other external sources.
Your organization might be part of a bigger innovation ecosystem. For example, you might work in an open innovation environment where you’re working with a number of other businesses and sectors to solve similar challenges.
Having ideas can also come from serendipity and pure inspiration, seeming almost to come out of the blue. An example is the discovery of new food product Incredo, a sweetener / sugar alternative, featured here on Netflix documentary series Explained.
The more ideas that you have, the more likely you are to have good ones. Therefore, having lots of good ideas are important to go into the innovation process.
Stage 2 – Capture ideas
Ensure that you’ve got some sort of process in place to have plenty of ideas and to capture those ideas. Don’t let them be like the butterflies that fly away. Capture the ideas, make sure they go somewhere central that you can access, and that everybody in your business knows how to contribute their ideas.
There are some great tools available that you can use to capture your ideas. You can either use paper-based spreadsheet and database tools. There are also some apps and digital means out there as well. Create an innovation funnel online so that you and your team can track and capture ideas and move them through the innovation funnel in a structured and easy way. Look into online tools such as Hype, Solverboard and others. You can use things like Slack and Trello boards and Asana to set up boards to track your innovation. You don’t need any flash solutions, just the right, light touch of process, the right, light touch of structure and these can free you up to think about the things that are important to you to get creative with those innovations and make them happen.
Stage 3 – Assessment
The third stage of the innovation process is to assess which ideas have the most promise and should move through to the development stage.
Give every idea a score out of five for:
- How much value it will bring for customers
- The fit with your organization’s strategy
Then, from the calculated scores, decide what your decision is going to be:
- Are you going to progress with the idea or not?
- Do you need to modify the idea before you progress it?
- Or do you need to park the idea for now and come back to it later?
Also think about what the next action for each idea is going to be:
- The idea may just not be a go-er, and the decision is simply not to proceed.
- Is this a simple idea that is straightforward, and you can just get on with it as Business as Usual (BAU)?
- Perhaps the idea is so amazing, you’ve got to pursue it as soon as you possibly can, but need to set up a project structure to deliver it?
- Maybe it’s a great idea, but you just don’t have the capacity or funding to deal with it right now, so need to park it for the time being?
Keep whoever came up with the idea informed all the way through the innovation process, including when you’ve chosen not to pursue the idea. It is important to show respect and appreciation for the idea and the person who came up with it, so that you’re managing expectations appropriately and encouraging the sharing of other ideas in the future, building your innovation culture.
Stage 4 – Development
Once you’ve assessed your ideas, the next step is to develop them, ready for testing. This means working on your idea to give it the very best chance of success. You can now start to go into more detail into the next stage of design; conducting more research, firming up costs or doing some bulletproofing to work out what the risks and the opportunities are. It may mean investing a bit more and exploring different options.
A lot of people go from idea to implementation straightaway without completing the development stage. Based on work by Puccio on individual preferences for different parts of the innovation process, those of us who enjoy the development phase are not in the majority. Only 21% of us have ‘Developer” as part our innovation preferences.
If developing ideas is not a strength, work with others who do enjoy it and are good at it.
Beware that some people can get stuck at the development stage of the innovation process by trying to get everything perfect before they move forward. Remember, don’t innovate in a vacuum. If you keep your innovation to yourself and you try to make it too perfect before it goes anywhere, you’re not going to be getting any feedback that will enable you to move forward. So, don’t get stuck in this development phase of the innovation process. Do just enough, all the way through, to move yourself through the funnel, and into the next stage.
Stage 5 – Test
The test phase is where you try out the idea in a small, low risk, low-cost way before you go big. Action small trials just to test the idea, then decide how you’re going to tweak it and do it bigger and better next time. You might want to do a prototype or a proof of concept, or POC, as it’s also known, to test with some research or focus groups.
Alternatively, you could do a soft launch where you run your innovation, but you don’t promote it. You’re simply making sure that it works properly, doing a low-profile dry run.
Take a look at my article here on how to validate your business ideas.
Work to the principle of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) all the way through the testing process. This means doing just enough to test your idea and get the feedback that you need. For your test to be meaningful, involve the customer as well to obtain some low cost, low risk, quick feedback, and then go again. Test fail fast, learn fast, go again, and keep doing that in small ways to move you forward. Be rapid, smart, and strategic in your test process.
Stage 6 – Launch
Once you’ve tested your idea and you’ve moved yourself all the way through the innovation process, this is when you’re ready to launch.
Here are my top tips to help ensure a successful launch.
Think about the innovation process in your business.
Do you even have one?
If you do have one, how well does it work?
It starts with having ideas and capturing them, then assessing them to decide which ones you’re going to do something with, park for now, or develop. The next stage is to test ideas that make it through the development gate in a really low risk, fast, effective way to see how they work in the real world. All the way through this, of course, you’re checking in with customers, being agile, and going back to what the customer wants, and how you can solve the customer’s problem in the best way possible. That way, you’ll keep moving the best ideas through the funnel through to a successful launch.
If you’re interested in more content on innovation, you might like my articles here on innovation strategy and business innovation. I was also interviewed for an article on innovation strategy here by Raconteur, The Times Online supplement for business leaders.
If you’d like to know any more the innovation process for your organization, then please do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
My purpose is to help you innovate and get you to where you, your team and your organization want to be.
I hope you’ve found this article useful, thank you for taking the time to read it.