In Pursuit of “Actionable” Ideas

Engagement matters on the front end of innovation. Tangible results matter on the back end. Organizations that pursue the practice of collaborative innovation seek, ultimately, actionable ideas: ideas whose implementation yields benefits.

What makes an idea “actionable”? How does the practitioner increase the likelihood that their organization discovers them?

In this article innovation architect Doug Collins shares his perspective.

In theory, every idea, no matter how sweeping in scope, possesses the element of immediate actionability.

Crowdsourcing with the End in Mind

Earlier this summer the sponsor of his organization’s practice of collaborative innovation and I enjoyed productive dialogue over a breakfast of French toast and bacon. All meaningful dialogue occurs after the second cup of coffee and before 10 am.

His inquiry to me: How might his organization solicit, identify, and pursue “actionable” ideas?

In this article I recap the essence of our talk. What is an actionable idea? How might we solicit them?

What Is an Actionable Idea?

We explored the thought that an actionable idea has at least three characteristics.

First, sponsorship: someone must be in a position to act upon an idea for it to be actionable. In organizations, actionability means that an individual decides to devote resource—time, money, and energy—to exploring the idea’s potential.

That is, leadership effectiveness serves as the foundation for actionability—the sponsor as actor.

Second, trialability and observability: Everett Rogers, in Diffusion of Innovations, observed that for ideas to proliferate, people must with relative ease be able to try them and to observe the results of the trials. Rogers identified other factors that contribute to the diffusion of innovation. However, these two factors, in particular, seem to tie most closely with the attribute of actionability.

Why? My client concluded that the adjective immediate implicitly described actionable: that is, an actionable idea is, by default, immediately actionable. Few barriers exist for the organization to try an actionable idea, either because the idea is easy to try or because the organization spends its way to this state (e.g., through increased investment in research & development). (Some of my other clients who speak of pursuing “the low hanging fruit” of a collaborative innovation challenge come at this same concept from a slightly different angle.)

Third, measurability: the right metrics and framework for measurement are in place.

We sometimes talk of innovation in terms of having a financial return: What is the ROI of an idea? Taken at face value, this view is foolishness. Not every idea, taken on its own, will have a discrete, measurable financial return, either because its contribution is hard to discern or because the organization has not taken the time to create a reliable, valid model to track such things with the imprimatur of the finance department.

Instead, for an idea to be actionable, the organization needs to have in place a defined, accepted model for assessing it in proper context. The model that makes sense to me is the three horizon view as described in The Alchemy of Growth. The idea in question aids the core business (horizon 1); supports an emerging business (horizon 2); or, serves as a new venture to be pursued (horizon 3).

In other words, few organizations have the stomach for shooting from the hip when it comes to exploring the potential of an idea and deciding the results of the trial. The framework sets the target for success.

Putting Dialogue into Practice

What specific steps might the practitioner take, given the above?

The collaborative innovation blueprint suggests the following.

First, the intent of the practice must align to the business goals of the sponsor. This alignment frees the sponsor to act upon the ideas, assuming they have committed to realizing the full potential of their leadership (figure 1).

Figure 1: intent

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Secondly, with respect to forum, the community convened to engage on the critical question must have a vested interest in participating: resolving the question improves their situation. Actionable ideas will more likely come from the inquiry-led form of collaborative innovation because of the greater sponsor-to-community alignment. Serendipitous discovery through the open form seems, by comparison, to be an exercise in wishful thinking, relative to actionability (figure 2).

Figure 2: forum

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Thirdly, with respect to process, the practitioner has in place a means to assess the triability and observability of ideas during the front end phase. Likewise, they have a way of aligning each idea they choose to pursue to a horizon during resolution as a way of defining the desired outcomes—that is, what action, in broad terms, do we take, based on our understanding that not all ideas are created equally (figure 3)?

Figure 3: process

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Divide and Conquer Innovation Management

In theory, every idea, no matter how sweeping in scope, possesses the element of immediate actionability. You have an idea for digital signage in your 400-store retail operation. You could mock up one (1) display for the one (1) store nearest you to see what you can learn, then go from there.

The experienced practitioner learns how to make the trade-off between sample size and validity of results from their back-end exploration.

The practitioner knows, too, that they must still have sponsorship (Is trialing, no matter how limited, a good use of time?), community engagement (Have we fully vetted the hypothesis?), and process (Are we defining the right actions for the right ideas?).

By : Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Jarden Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, The Procter & Gamble Company, and Ryder System navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation. Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.
As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL). Today, Doug works as senior practice leader at social innovation company Mindjet, where he consults with a range of clients. He focuses on helping them realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

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