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Friday, August 12, 2011

Two Rules for Unleashing Your Company's Innovation Energy

Two Rules for Unleashing Your Company's Innovation Energy: "

The other day one of my colleagues had an interesting idea. He observed how we basically have two ways of engaging with clients. One is to form a consulting team that works with a client for several months. That hands-on guidance is valuable but too expensive for some companies. The other approach is a workshop where we train a group of people over one to three days. That approach is more affordable but 'one-and-done' makes it hard to have a lasting impact.

'What if,' he mused, 'we did something in between? What if we rented a big warehouse, and staffed it with a handful of coaches and guides? We could create tools to help people with rapid prototyping and concept design. For a few weeks at a time, teams would work out of the space, separating themselves from some of the 'antibodies' of the core organization. Teams would also get hands-on guidance from other experts. Maybe they would learn from non-competitive companies as well.'

There are certainly relevant analogies to suggest that the idea has merit. Procter & Gamble, for example, has a physical location called the GYM that does just what my colleague described. P&G also started The Clay Street Project, which provides a 'safe space' for teams to go through an immersive, multi-week experience to 'break the back' of complicated problems. Another useful analogy is the Y-Combinator model, which gives a small injection of capital and physical space to promising start-ups.

Would that idea work for Innosight? As is almost always the case, my immediate answer was an unqualified 'Maybe.'

So I told my colleague that he should keep playing with the idea as long as he followed two guiding rules:

  1. Don't let your day job suffer

  2. Don't lose any money

The first point is pretty obvious. If you haven't been officially asked to spend time on an innovation project, your license to innovate is contingent on continuing to deliver strong performance against your core responsibilities.

To some readers, the second point might seem to be a show-stopper. How can you innovate without losing money?

In our industry, at least, it's pretty easy. The first step my colleague followed was to create a concept document providing an overview of the opportunity. In 15 pages he described the market need, the offering, the proposed business model, critical assumptions, and a plan to test those assumptions. He then shared the overview with people and asked for feedback. Finally, key assumptions began to emerge, such as the degree to which general enthusiasm for the idea would translate into a viable economic model.

The next step was to look for other zero-cost ways to test the idea. One suggestion? Write a blog post about it to see if people had any thoughts (that's what I am doing here — feedback welcome!).

Remember, there's a critical difference between spending money and losing money. To defray upfront costs, I suggested to my colleague that he should find a company that would be interested enough in learning from the idea to serve as a co-sponsor.

If you are playing around with an idea and feel like you need to spend to learn, try to ask for as little money as possible. To bring your vision to life, find someone with a good eye for design on ELance. Find an expert in the industry via Linkedin and ask that person a question about a critical assumption. Run online surveys using SurveyMonkey (remembering, of course, that there is a limit to how much you can learn from surveys). Break free of iteration-itis and demonstrate that there's something behind your idea before you request more resources.

My two rules might not make sense for every company, but I bet if you follow them, you will see an explosion of innovation energy because people will feel permission to dabble at the fringes of their job. Who knows what great business might come out the other side?


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