How to Structure the Chaotic Start of Innovation
The fuzzy front end of innovation is for many a struggle to master. A study of Booz & Company shows only a quarter of all companies are effective at the start of innovation. And Stage-Gate Guru Robert Cooper shows that of every seven new product/service projects, about four enter development, 1.5 are launched, and only one succeeds.
Quotes of managers in my Linkedin network confirm their struggle:
1. “A lot of people are still unaware of the need for innovation.”
2. “We cannot change our habits within the company.”
3. “We are not creative.”
4. “The board always stops new initiatives before they enter the market.”
5. “We fear failure because our past innovations were not successful.”
6. “Our short-term mindset rules.”
7. “There is no support for innovation among my colleagues.”
8. “We struggle to get inside the head of our customers.”
9. “Our innovation process is unorganized. It’s chaos.”
10. “Ideas are stopped because of budget cuts.”
In my Linkedin post “Five Essential Innovation Questions” I discussed five dilemmas in the ideation phase. I advised you to:
- start ideation when there is a real business need;
- use a team approach;
- start with a concrete innovation assignment;
- define clear criteria what is expected of new concepts;
- use both creativity and structure in your approach.
But HOW do you do this in practice? I’d like to help you with a structured innovation methodology, which combines both creativity and business reality. The innovation methodology is called FORTH – an acronym found in the first letter of each of the 5 steps: Full Steam Ahead, Observe & Learn, Raise Ideas, Test Ideas and Homecoming. FORTH was developed in practice and is used successfully in Europe by more than 30 organizations in both B2B and B2C markets and in non-profit sectors. The method is part of my new book:The Innovation Expedition. The deliverables of this innovation expedition are innovative concepts, which fit the ‘in the box’ reality of your organization, otherwise nothing will happen. That’s why you will bring back new business in the form of mini new business cases.
Stage 1: Full steam ahead
A good preparation increases the chance of success. First you determine the purpose and direction for the ideation phase in an innovation assignment. And you determine the criteria the innovative concepts must comply to. The second important decision is to determine how your ideal ideation team looks like. The bigger the team, the greater the diversity and the greater the chance of wild, crazy, pattern breakthrough ideas. A special mission asks for special people. That’s why top managers are also part of the innovation team. When they are part of it; they will support the end results. At the FORTH kick-off workshop an enthusiastic multidisciplinary team is ready to go.
Stage 2: Observe and learn
There are no old roads to new solutions. That’s why it is essential to get fresh insights. That is the essence of stage two. Who is the potential customer and what motivates and frustrates him or her? That’s key. In this phase you get to know the customer and his or her behaviour. All team members will visit customers themselves. Besides customers, others serve as a source of inspiration for the innovation opportunities, identified in the kick-off. Ask yourself the question “If we want to innovate in this direction, from whom can we learn?” This way you look for the best practices and valuable experiences of other persons or organizations involved with these opportunities.
Team members share their insights and lessons learned in several ‘Observe and learn’ workshops in this phase. The exploration take place in six weeks. At the end, the ideation team gained relevant new customer insights and has explored interesting innovation opportunities.
Stage 3: Raise Ideas
This step is the creative pièce de résistance of FORTH. It consists of an intensive two-day ideation workshop of innovative concepts. The ideation is inspired by the discovery stage and team members normally cannot wait to share their ideas. This leads often to 750 ideas or even more. They are converged into 40 idea directions and twelve concrete concept statements. In a second session the concepts are taken a step further and are improved. External experts are invited to strengthen the team. Use cartoonists to visualize ideas and to take care of the first designs.
Stage 4: Test Ideas
How attractive are the new product or service concepts really? That’s a legitimate question. Therefore you reflect on the concepts immediately. The strength of the new concepts is checked among potential customers. This research, on a small scale, can be done quickly and simultaneously in several countries or continents, with ‘live’ customers or online. First reactions from potential customers often offer excellent handles for improvement. Another workshop takes place in which the team brainstorms how weak spots can be fixed. Having concepts tested in this early phase creates the advantage that you can use the ‘Voice of the Customer’ to gain internal acceptance for the concepts later on in the stage-gate process. At the end of this phase it is decided which concepts are worked out as mini new business case in the last phase.
Stage 5: Homecoming
In the final stage of FORTH you bring home the deliverables of the innovation expedition. It is not a bunch of yellow post-its or mood boards. Instead the innovative concepts are worked out as mini new business cases. These are business plans per concept elaborating on essential business elements as: the attractiveness of the new concepts to the target group, the sales and profit potential, how the concept fits in the business strategy and whether realising it is considered feasible. Presenting end results in this form creates a lot of appreciation in the boardroom. A business case is something top management will recognise and understand. The activities in this last stage cover around four weeks. At the end of this fifth – and final – stage the ideation team has completed its tasks. In practice it takes you around fifteen weeks after the kick-off to return with 3-5 mini new business cases.
User feedback on this structured ideation approach shows that the strength of a structured ideation approach like the FORTH innovation method is in 7 aspects:
With a structured ideation approach you can jumpstart innovation. You can download twenty checklists and innovation maps on the methodology for free. I wish you a lot of success on your own innovation expeditions.
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