How many times in your life have you heard this phrase from a manager or boss? I consider this phrase and its underlying thinking one of the greatest barriers to innovation. On the face of it, the phrase is absurd. Someone may recognize a problem, but not have a clue how to solve it. Not knowing how to solve a problem does not diminish the value of recognizing the problem in the first place. Isn’t the first step of any new idea trying to figure out what problem you are trying to solve? Perhaps the person identifying the problem isn’t smart enough to determine the solution or isn’t even interested, but someone else might be. Perhaps it’s impossible to solve the problem today, but tomorrow someone might come up with a solution. Problems and solutions don’t require the same creators and I would argue they seldom do.
This same type of thinking is often extended to innovation. We often link together the creation of an idea with its implementation. This has a chilling effect on trying to create a culture supportive of new ideas. If one can only propose ideas they think they can implement, there will be a very limited set of ideas proposed. One of the key things I learned as an entrepreneur is that the person who comes up with an idea and starts a company is often not the same person who can grow a company or lead it long term. It takes an entirely different set of skills to implement an idea than to create an idea. Fortunately this allows far more people to participate in the innovation process. Far more people have the skills to come up with an idea than have the skills to implement one.
Nathan Myhrvold, former chief strategist and chief technology officer, created a new company Intellectual Ventures (www.intellectualventures.com). His company focuses only on the creation of new ideas or inventions and not on their implementation. They believe their skills lie in invention, not in product development, manufacturing, marketing, sales, etc. They recognize it takes different skills to deliver the various parts of the food chain.
Here at PwC our innovation activities clearly separate idea creation from idea implementation. We have recognition programs and systems focused on the creation and collection of ideas. We have a completely separate process for sifting through ideas, evaluating their potential value and finally implementing the most promising ones. In some cases the idea originator is involved in implementation and in others it’s an entirely new team which carries the idea forward to fruition. The key point is that every idea is valuable and we recognize people for simply putting forth an idea.
We encourage our staff to identify problems and opportunities even if they don’t have a solution or plan. Ideas are the starting point of innovation.