“Fail fast, fail often, fail cheaply”. Thus goes the mantra of innovation in 2009. And it’s correct; generate lots of ideas, however absurd, and critique them later. Know when to cut your losses and move on and do so with the minimum investment possible. But here’s the rub: how fast is too fast? After all, it’s very easy to say no, to reject an idea and move on. Innovation may start with the generation of ideas, but that’s not where it ends, that’s merely the beginning of the pipeline. If all that is happening is the generation of large numbers of ideas and the expediting of them through a pipeline to be quickly judged by one or two executives who may themselves epitomize the very barriers to innovation that the process was put in place to help break down, then this is innovation in name only and, ultimately, is unlikely to generate great breakthroughs or cost savings.
True innovation may start with the generation of ideas, but it only moves forward towards implementation when those reviewing these ideas take a big picture view; when they look at an idea, then turn it on its head; when they recognize not its inapplicability for their department or project, but its applicability for another group. Having this vision requires the ability to look at an idea and shift the paradigm over a few notches.
A new product from Dyson vacuum cleaners perfectly illustrates this point; while experimenting with a new design for a hand-drier they realized that they had failed at their stated task. But they also realized that they had just invented a bladeless fan. And so a whole new product was born. The easy thing would have been to have rejected the innovation as a hand-drier component; the paradigm shift was having the vision to see the concept through a new lens. To have rejected it out of hand would have been to have thrown away a whole new potential product.
Of course, this is a delicate balancing act to perform; remain too attached to an idea and you risk getting mired down with research and development costs for an idea to nowhere. But say no too soon, and you lose the potential of what the idea might have grown into. How to walk this tightrope? Well, the first step is having as diverse a team as possible reviewing ideas; diverse in every sense of the word: culturally, demographically, and professionally. Out of a diversity of viewpoint, backgrounds and experiences will arise enough unique perspectives to enable the idea to be turned on its head if necessary. Out of a melodious blending of these viewpoints might emerge the idea that the original idea could have been were it crafted better, articulated better, and better thought-out. Or perhaps it was already all these things and just needed someone who could step outside of a particular area of interest and think big picture, “some of the great innovation wins are cross purposing of concepts out of silos” – Jon Bidwell, Chubb.
Ultimately, I think that what needs to happen is a certain suspension of belief when initially reviewing ideas. Suspend belief for a few minutes and think about all the possibilities that the idea brings to mind and see what, if anything, shakes out of that. And if nothing does shake out in a reasonable amount of time, then pull the plug and move quickly onto the next idea.