Ideas Don’t Equal Innovation

By Mike Myatt, Chief Strategy Officer, N2growth

Ideas Don't Equal Innovation
I had a long conversation yesterday with a friend discussing creativity, ideas, innovation, branding and the like. As a result of our conversation, I decided to dust-off an old post, give it a few updates, and pass along my thoughts, which can be best summarized as “Ideas Don’t Equal Innovation.” It is my hope to help dispel the myth that ideas are inherently good things. Let me state right from the outset that I place little value on ideas. Not only do raw ideas have little intrinsic value, but they are often very costly. While I stipulate to the fact that ideas can sometimes lead to great things, I also submit that it is more frequently the case that ideas lead to disappointment, and even outright disaster. Those of you familiar with my work are probably wondering if it is really me authoring this text…if you’re baffled at how a champion of innovation can simultaneously be an idea-basher, I urge you to read on, and I promise the congruity will become apparent.

I want to start by actually defining what an idea is, and is not. Ideas do not constitute a philosophy, principle, or strategy. An idea is not synonymous with a competitive advantage, an idea is not necessarily a sign of creativity, an idea does not constitute innovation, and as much as some people wish it was so, an idea is certainly not a business. To the chagrin of many reading this post, ideas in and of themselves are nothing more than unrefined, random thoughts. Ideas on their own accord are really quite useless. The truth can often times be harsh and difficult to hear, but it is nonetheless the truth.

Ideas are a dime a dozen…take a moment and reflect on all the ideas you’ve spawned over the years, or the many ideas that have been birthed by your friends, family, and professional associates and you’ll quickly see that most of them never got lift-off. The problem is that most ideas never get implemented, and moreover even the best ideas when improperly implemented can cause great harm. You see, while creativity is a clearly a valuable asset, unbridled creativity where random, disparate ideas abound outside of a sound decisioning and execution framework will create distraction and chaos much more often than they will lead to innovation. The difference between an idea and innovation is execution – don’t be the “idea” person, be the innovator.

In fact, it is most often the organizations that demonstrate a “heard mentality” when rushing to adopt the latest ideas that are the farthest thing away from being innovative. The net result of being a late stage trend follower is that you will likely experience little more than yet another in a long line of great adventures that ended in frustration due to the time wasted and the investment squandered.  The reality is that many businesses are quick to recognize great ideas, but they often have no plan for how to successfully integrate them into their business model.

My advice to you is not to let your business get caught up in embracing random ideas – at least not without some initial analysis being conducted to determine the likelihood of success. Failed initiatives are costly at several levels. Aside from being costly, a flawed execution can cast doubt on management credibility, have a negative impact on morale, taint the brand, adversely affect external relationships, and cause a variety of other problems for your business.

Every sound business initiative begins with a solid strategic plan. However while most anyone can cobble together a high level strategic plan, very few can author a strategy that can be successfully implemented. In order for your enterprise to turn an idea into a monetizing and/or value creating event you should develop a strategic plan that attempts to measure the idea against the following 15 elements:

1. Framework: The idea should be generated within a solid framework for decisioning. It should be developed as a solution to a problem or to exploit an opportunity. The idea should be in alignment with the overall vision and mission of the enterprise.

2. Advantage: If the idea doesn’t provide a unique competitive advantage it should at least bring you closer to an even playing field. That said, the best initiatives don’t level the field, they tilt the field in your favor.

3. Alignment: Any new idea should preferably add value to existing initiatives, and if not, it should show a significant enough return on investment to justify the dilutive effect of not keeping the main thing the main thing.

4. Assess: Put the idea through a risk/reward and cost/benefit analysis.

5. Simple: Whether the new idea is intended for your organization, vendors, suppliers, partners or customers it must easy to use. Usability drives adoptability, and therefore it pays to keep things simple.

6. Validate: Just because an idea sounds good doesn’t mean it is, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You should endeavor to validate proof of concept based upon detailed, credible research.

7. Contingency: Nothing is without risk, and when you think something is without risk, that is when you’re most likely to end-up in trouble. All initiatives surrounding new ideas should include detailed risk management provisions.

8. Realistic: Adopting a new idea should be based upon solid business logic that drives corresponding financial engineering and modeling.  New projects alway take longer and cost more than originally planned.  Be careful of high level, pie-in-the-sky projections.

9. Accountability: Any new ideas should contain accountability provisions. Every task should be assigned and managed according to a plan, and all of this should occur in the light of day.

10. Measurable: Any new ideas being adopted must lead to measurable objectives. Deliverables, benchmarks, deadlines, and success metrics must be incorporated into the plan.

11. Timing: It must be detailed and deliverable on a schedule. The initiative should have a beginning, middle and end.

12. Integrated: Ideas need to be incorporated into strategic initiatives and not constitute disparate systems. They should be incorporated into integrated solutions that eliminate redundancies, and build in tactical leverage points.

13. Evolving: Ideas should contain a road-map for versioning and evolution that is in alignment with other strategic initiatives and the overall corporate mission. No road map signals an incomplete idea and will also likely equal quick obsolescence.

14. Actionable: A successful idea cannot remain in a strategic planning state. It must be actionable through tactical implementation.

15. Champion: Senior leadership must champion any new idea being adopted. If someone at the C-suite level is against the new idea, it will likely die on the cutting-room floor.

The bottom line is that new ideas are beautiful things when they become solutions or lead to opportunities. Properly implemented, capitalizing on process driven creativity can keep business from stagnating and cause growth and evolution. Just follow the 15 rules above and avoid being the misguided change agent for solely for the sake of change. Thoughts?