I have talked a couple of times recently about some results from the assignments in my MBA class this year. In assessing the Innovation Value Chains within their firms, 3 out of 60 identified their organisation as ideas-poor, while the other 57 had bigger problems with idea selection and idea execution. The paradox is that when firms try to become more innovative the first thing they usually do is take steps to generate more ideas.
In part, I think that this is due to the fact that we have relatively more resources available to help with this part of the process. There are plenty of books on improving idea generation and creativity. There are plenty of consultants around with methods for doing the same. It is the area where it is the easiest to see quick results, which makes it attractive. This is deceptive though, because the data from my MBA students strongly suggests that this is the area where organisations actually need the least help.
What do we have that can help with idea selection and idea execution? One approach that is very good to use for idea selection is idea jams – a technique originally developed by IBM. I’ve been talking about this some recently with my friend Kate Morrison, who uses this approach in her firm Vulture Street Innovation Software and Services. Here is how she describes the jam process:
A jam is an online, time-limited collaboration event specific to an invited group of participants and focused on a particular organisational problem, opportunity or challenge.
Compared with traditional problem solving and group decision-making techniques, the jam approach offers significant benefits because it is:
* focused around specific themes or challenges, as defined by management – hence avoiding non-productive and open-ended solicitations (such as suggestion boxes) or community discussions;
* specific to the group invited to participate, which can include customers and suppliers as well as employees;
* scalable beyond the limits of physical get-togethers, able to accommodate hundreds of participants; and
* time-limited, allowing a concentration of attention and energy and preventing the process from fading into the background of business-as-usual.
So it is a crowd-sourcing method, but it uses a specific, hand-picked crowd. The thing that I particular like about this approach is that it doesn’t just generate ideas, it selects them. As ideas come in, people are able to comment on them, and vote on the ones that they like. Here are some results from one of Kate’s projects showing the contributions of all of the people participating in a small jam, along with the 6 most popular ideas (indicated by the stars):
These results from illustrate some interesting points:
- Contributions follow a power law (roughly). This is very normal for interactive networks of people. There are usually a small number of people with really large contributions (in this case, the top 3 idea contributers generated 38% of the total ideas!), a slightly bigger number of people with a few contributions, and a majority of people who contribute only one or two ideas (Clay Shirky explains this really well in one of my favourite TED talks). In many situations, it is difficult to solicit the ideas from this last, largest group, which is important because:
- Idea quality is unrelated to idea volume! The idea voted the best was contributed by the 14th most prolific idea generator, and the one voted second best was contributed by the least prolific idea generator. The top two idea contributors support Linus Pauling’s contention that ‘the way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bads ones away.’ But in good news for us introverts, the people talking the most aren’t necessarily the ones coming up with the best contributions.
- The key point is that at the end of this process, you end up not just with a bunch of ideas, but with an idea of what the best ideas are. This is what I like about jams as innovation tools – it is actually a selection tool, which is one of the areas that firms are often weak. At the end of the process, you don’t have hundreds of new ideas, you have 3 or 4 really promising ones.
So this is one method you can use to improve your capability in selecting new innovation ideas. There are more formal processes available like Stage-Gate too. If you’re going to invest time and money in improving innovation within your organisation, I think it’s essential that you focus on getting better at selecting and executing new ideas, rather than simply generating them.