Anatomy of an Effective Front-End of Innovation Cycle

The Front End of Innovation is that fuzzy bit where someone, or a group, conceives a new business concept. We say “fuzzy” because it’s the part of the innovation process that is the most purely creative. It’s a step into the unknown to create something new and calls for different tools and techniques. Because it’s fuzzy, we think it’s useful to break it down and look at it step-by-step.

Who participates in a Front-End of Innovation (FEI) Cycle?

Each FEI cycle should have:

  • A credible cycle leader, who is empowered is to facilitate and move things along on schedule
  • A “data maven” who keeps track of the questions, ideas, and product concepts, and finally,
  • A resource group of people who will supply the thinking power, the ideas, write the concepts, and help with convergent activities.

The duties can rotate, but for every cycle they must squarely be the responsibility of designated people.

The cycle can run more smoothly with the support of an Idea Management System (IMS). If you’re working without one, the data maven will need to organize an email address and spreadsheet to collect and cluster ideas.

The FEI Cycle

The cycle consists of six stages. What we think of “brainstorming” is only one part of it. And crucially the first meeting is devoted to generating questions more than ideas. Generating interesting questions, to be answered by your idea generation resource group is probably the secret ingredient to excellence in the front-end process.

Getting Started: Better Questions Means Better Ideas

Coming up with better, more focused questions to pose to your ideation resource group can be done by doing some combination of these things:

  • Getting a better understanding of the broad market context
  • Learning consumer or customer perspectives
  • Using stimuli that jogs the mind into “different” ways of thinking
  • Bringing diverse thinkers into the process of generating questions

This risk (which we see often) is that teams default to obvious questions.

For example a mobile phone company might think this is a valid question for ideation: In what ways might we make our product more appealing to young adults?

The mobile phone company has learned through market research that young people ages 18 to 24 buy frequently and are a large market segment. If you were to conduct idea generation with that question, however, you would probably end up with ideas that add features to the existing phone line. Implemented, those feature/functions would tend to compete with similar features and functions other vendors thought of independently. So, no breakthroughs are likely to come from such a question.  However, with a bit more imagination and stimulus, you might arrive at a question like:

In what ways might we make our mobile phone like a game?

The stimulus for this question is the observation of young adults playing games on their phone when not using it for calls or texting. It’s a very different question and it would lead to a very different set of ideas. We’re not saying this is the “right” question; we’re saying this is a different question.

The goal in Step 1 is to:

  1. Move beyond obvious questions
  2. Avoid leaping to the first question
  3. Generate a long list of questions that diverge – in all directions imaginable.

Second Step: Selecting one bold question

The ideas your cycle generates will be answers to the one question you select. So it’s important to choose a question that can elicit breakthrough ideas.

In this phase of work, you’ll want a small number (2-3) of diverse thinkers to look at the questions generated in Step One in relation to the cycle’s criteria.

The small group is reviewing the questions, and ranking them in terms of:

  1. Intrigue factor – is the question intellectually stimulating?
  2. Heart – does the question connect emotionally?
  3. Scope – is the question suggestive of incremental changes or fresh, new ideas?
  1. Clarity – When we read the question do we immediately grasp what it’s asking? (Complex questions can dishearten thinkers and stifle creativity.)
  2. Relevance – Would answers to this question be ideas this business can contemplate? (Careful, though, because this criteria is oft abused and ends up strangling breakthrough thinking.)

Step 3: Virtual Ideation

Ideas are replies to the chosen platform question.

Thinking up ideas takes time. That’s why virtual ideation is so important. Virtual ideation is the process of a group jamming ideas in response to a question, working alone or together. It works because it allows each mind to incubate responses to the question.

We recommend a two- to four-week interval when the question is live and people, as part of their day-to-day work, can offer answers, as they generate them.

Here are essential ingredients to make the Virtual Ideation effective:

1)    Enroll people ahead of time, so people know what is happening and what’s expected of them before the virtual ideation interval starts

2)    Set clear expectations, e.g. 30 ideas per participant

3)    Set a clear start time/date and end time/date.

4)    Keep facilitating participation throughout the period. Give them the nudging, the guidance and the incentives they need to participate fully and effectively.

Here’s a virtual ideation enjoyed by one ideator.

As you can see, he’s thinking all the day, whatever place he’s in. That’s how creativity happens, so it’s a good idea to organise your idea generation to work with creative style, not against it.

Optional but highly recommended:

5)    Open up your virtual ideation and include trusted outsiders. The outsiders might be suppliers who have goodwill to your business (and are trustworthy) and also professional “trained brains” who can set a pace your people then strive to match.

6)    Hire an Idea Management System (IMS) if email and spreadsheets get too clunky.

Step Four: Idea convergence

Clustering ideas helps you take all the input from all the creative thinkers and begin processing it. The goal in this step is to arrive at a small subset of ideas – say 20-30 that are the best, most interesting.

When your creative minds are leaping off in any direction, they are diverging. When your focus is on clustering ideas and filtering them, your thinking is converging.

The process for clustering ideas, filtering them according to criteria and eventually selecting a few ideas is called Idea Convergence.

Criteria for idea convergence can vary. Sample criteria are:

  1. Is this is a new market for us?
  2. Could we implement this is <12 months?
  3. Would this cannibalize an existing product? (And don’t assume you shouldn’t if the answer is “Yes” – cannibalizing can be a very effective strategy in some industries.)
  4. Is this interesting?

Step Five: Idea Generation/Concept Writing Session

Now is the time to take the 20-30 ideas and elaborate as concepts. When you meet, you may also decide to jam some more ideas in a traditional idea generation session.

It often makes sense to get people out of the office for the session. Always, even if you remain in your office, emphasize that cell phones and email checking are not welcome except during breaks.

The flow of work in the session is:

  1. Write up the concept(alone or in pairs)
  2. Share to the wider group
  3. Refine/rewrite based on group feedback

Depending on time, the goal is to have full concepts for a subset of the ideas.  Working from this subset, the group should then select from those which 5-6 concepts to develop as a story.

A story describes meaningful change to a person or group. So the basic story ingredients are descriptions of:

  • A person/group who would purchase your innovative product/service.
  • How something that matters to the purchaser changes, as a by-product or result of using your innovation.

Presenting a concept story invokes the imagination and this is important because leaders need to see ‘the vision’ of the future an implemented idea holds.

Falling back on dry presentation habits like business cases does your group’s creative thinking – and your boss’s listening – a disservice.

Step Six: Management Presentations

If management says, YES, any approved concepts are then handed off to the development team and the concepts enter the more traditional stage-gate development steps.

Presenting to management is important for several reasons:

  1. Regular presentations of concepts give management a big picture sense of what kinds of ideas are out there, and what specific ideas they might consider for implementation.
  2. Presenting to management stimulates management thinking around the question at hand – they have ideas too.
  3. Over time it’s a way to “manage up” – by being proactive in presenting management with options for business growth, you steer the business towards growth.
  4. Note – even measure — how many concepts are rejected, approved, and taken to market, and which types.  This data provides insight to both management and the innovation team about what potential your innovation process has and what barriers.

Now, and this is key, don’t wait until your products have gone to market before you start in at Step One again. Plan another cycle to begin after a short break — and do this all again.

A more continuous, faster, front-end of innovation cycle is key to a full, robust pipeline and regular new market entries.

By Gregg Fraley, Kate Hammer & Indy Neogy

Learn more on October 4th!


In large or complex organizations, starting or ramping up innovation can be a real challenge. For concrete ideas on how to create momentum for innovation projects, tune into this interactive IM Channel One Ask the Expert Q&A webcast. On October 4th, IM Channel One invites two experts from KILN’s cauldron to discuss aspects of innovation program momentum, from leveraging the creative talent of your people, through to winning management’s buy-in. The conversation will be driven to answer your questions.

About the authors


Gregg Fraley is a serial entrepreneur and international expert in creative problem solving. Author of Jack’s Notebook, he advises Fortune 500 corporations and speaks internationally on themes relating to company innovation and commercial creativity. As board member for the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) in the USA from 2003-2007 when he moved to Britain, Gregg trained scores of professionals in Creative Problem Solving (CPS) using the Osborn-Parnes model. He continues this work through KILN, a firm he co-founded in 2010 with….

Kate Hammer PhD is a commercial storyteller. She catalyses innovation in companies of all sizes, stokes people’s courage to attempt what is unfamiliar, and crafts stories that change what people choose. In 2012, culture anthropologist Grant McCracken dubbed Kate an honorary Chief Culture Officer. She is a Fellow of the RSA in London.

Indy Neogy is an expert in culture, both anthropological and organizational. He earned an MBA from Leeds after studying rocket science at MIT. His book When Culture Matters: A 55-Minute Guide to Better Cross Cultural Communication has just been published. Like Kate, Indy also has been named honorary Chief Culture Officer, and is an RSA Fellow.

  • http://twitter.com/alec_maki Alec Maki

    This looks like a great ideation process. Thank you for sharing.

    That said, how do you ensure these ideas are grounded on solid market opportunities? Having bold questions based on vague understandings of the market (18-24 year olds buy things) may lead to wet noodle ideas. Converging them to the “best” could be just the driest of these wet noodles. Still soggy.
    Might make for some great teriyaki — but perhaps not the greatest product innovation.
    Unfortunately, I see this reality all too often in companies. Too much teriyaki, not enough value creation.

  • http://twitter.com/Indy_Neogy Indy Neogy

    Two points – first, Kiln recommends (and provides) stimulus grounded in cultural trends for generating questions. In this case, the rise of gamifcation comes out of the stimulus.
    Secondly, if you try too hard to inject “solid market opportunities” at the very front end, you guarantee incremental thinking.

    I see far too many companies that kill off breakthrough ideas because they don’t incubate them enough to discover their potential. Leaving them with “sure fire value creation concepts” that get blown out of the water when their competitor rewrites the rules of their market segment.

  • http://twitter.com/kate_hammer Kate Hammer PhD FRSA

    Thanks for joining the conversation, Alec. I’m concerned you’re too quick to jump to the conclusion that we’re talking here only about product innovation.

    Product innovation isn’t the only arena where bold questions need to be framed as the basis for ideation. Potentially any aspect of the customer awareness and interaction – and indeed the internal processes by which goods and services are created for customers – can benefit from re-framing and ideation.
    To build on the example in the article you’ve highlighted, Alec, gameifying mobile could change the phone design (which I’m guessing is what you may have in mind when you say product).
    But equally, it could transform how customers are enrolled, whether and how loyalty schemes operate using a point system…or indeed as I conceived in 2007 as a part of a strategy that won a media agency a deal with a telecoms company worth multi-millions, how a telco promotes itself to this age group using experiential marketing. In other words, articulating (on an ongoing basis) a wider, richer set of choices which company decision-makers can evaluate.

    Of course, understandings of reality inform what fresh ideas should be developed (and how). The interesting questions, to my mind are: at what stage? in what ways?

  • Pingback: Argumentos para rebatir el "no quiero medir" | Estrategias Online | Blog de Ivo Campos

  • http://twitter.com/adipawar Aditya Pawar

    Thanks for the clear process. Coming from a R&D background, i have my doubts about how step 6 transitions into selection of a concept. More often then not, the senior management is well aware of the business case, market positioning etc, but may lack information on consumer acceptance or technology adoption. In this situation a top down selection of the concept does not work well and may lead to the project being derailed later. I am sure there are better collaborative ways to shortlist concepts or models that can be used for participatory decision making. Although i have no examples of these myself, if such a methods have worked for some people, i would love to hear about it.

  • http://twitter.com/alec_maki Alec Maki

    The competitor rewrites the rules of the market segment because they executed on a new opportunity. Ideally, they did this with some foresight to illuminate the path.

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