Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Create your own innovation pipeline.

Many ideas. Fewer experiments. One big bet.

I know a lot of people who have a lot of great ideas...actually, a lot of ideas is probably more accurate. I am one of them. The problem is, that most people who have tons of ideas have no process for clearing their mind (and their mouth) of the less interesting ideas and putting more energy into the more interesting ideas. A solution to this problem is creating an innovation pipeline.

The first requirement for an effective innovation pipeline is tons and tons of input: new, random ideas. Random is important, because if you just have 100 different ideas about how to make a better mousetrap, you are not innovating, you are just engineering a better mousetrap.

The second requirement is to create some sort of fitness function that helps you evaluate the ideas and select the best (most fit) for experimentation. For example, you can score each idea for customer value, business value, ease of prototyping, and degree difference from the next best solution. The score is not as important as the process of critically evaluating your landslide of ideas and quickly sorting the potential winners from everything else.

The third component is to create experiments for the best ideas. An experiment is a prototype plus a business model--you want to learn as quickly as possible whether you can build it and whether you can make money off what you built. As far as prototypes are concerned, a good prototype is one that approximates what the customer would use (e.g., not just screen shots/drawings). As far as business models, do not wait until your product is in the box to figure out how to try to sell it. Do it early so you can adapt your product to the demand when it is still small and flexible.

Now that you have your experiments up and running, you need another fitness function. What happens if you cannot adapt your product to make a customer say "that is awesome" as he is reaching for his wallet? Throw the experiment and the idea away before you have invested too much time--you are just dating your experiments, and the quicker you give up on lower quality ideas the better. Even if you could make a marginal idea float, it is better to put that same amount of energy into a better idea and make it fly. Knowing that failure is a very real possibility, you want to invest as little as possible in your experiments so that you do not end up in a personal "too big to fail" scenario: if you have mortgaged your house or invested the last five years of your life for your new venture, you may not be able to reasonably assess whether you should just push a little harder or walk away.

So do not wait before looking your little experiment in the eye and making the call. And have many other experiments, so you can get a sense of what a good experiment feels like. And have many other ideas so that you can kill an experiment with confidence knowing that there are other good candidates waiting in the pipeline.

Once you have an experiment that feels right, you are ready to do great things. It is time to stop with the hedging of many and put yourself behind your one big bet. The big bet will evolve over time, but you are probably stuck with it for five years if it actually succeeds. The odds are still that you will fail, but you now have a better chance of success. And, by the way, do not feel guilty about what you have done--you never kill an idea or an experiment. You will probably end up looking to some of these as you execute on your big bet if you determine that they might satisfy a customer need. So get started today: write down all of your ideas on a board and build the foundation of your innovation pipeline.

Happy innovating.


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