Strategies for Evaluating Radical Innovations

A rigid idea evaluation process can prematurely kill radical innovations. Here are some strategies to prevent this from happening from Jeffrey Baumgartner.

You’ve heard the saying: “too many chefs spoil the pot.” Today, I propose my own saying: “too many evaluators spoil the idea.”

When I talk to larger organizations (2,000+ people) that are developing innovation processes, a lot of them set up very rigid multiple evaluation procedures for implementing an idea. Typically, if an idea is identified as having potential, it goes through a preliminary evaluation. Provided the evaluation is successful, it goes through a more rigid evaluation and a then a final evaluation. Ideas ­ together with a critique – which do not make it through an evaluation, are often sent back to the person responsible for the idea. She can then improve the idea and resubmit it for re-evaluation.

Radical innovation vs. risk control

Such a structure is fine if you are limiting your innovation to incremental innovation, but it’s deadly for radical innovation. That’s because evaluation is largely about risk control. Once you get too many people looking for potential risk in a creative idea, you can be sure they will find a lot of risk ­ too much risk to their minds. Thus the most creative ideas are likely to be sent back with comments like: “Try to make this fit better with our current product line” or “Such big changes in our operations are likely to cause disruption - please scale back your ideas to fit better with our current methods” or “That does not fit in with out business model.”

Rarely does an idea receive a critique such as: “That’s a crazy idea, but we believe you can make it even crazier. Go for it!” or “That idea is so radical it will redefine the market. But let’s see if we can push it even further. After all, there’s no point in being radical unless you are going to push your ideas to the limit” or “Albert Einstein once said ‘If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.’ Your idea is not absurd enough yet. Push it further.”

Of course large companies need to be careful about risk. After all, if an idea could “make or break” your company, you do have to bear in mind the “break” potential.

Strategies for evaluating radical innovations

On the other hand, one major reason why small companies tend to be more innovative than large companies is because the latter often require that ideas undergo multiple evaluations prior to implementation. In small companies, there is usually a single decision maker who can readily say “let’s do it” to an idea.

This is not to say that large companies should do away with their structured evaluation process. In the case of an idea that will not bring about major innovation, evaluations are useful for determining whether or not that idea is likely to succeed and where its weaknesses are. This is important.

But, large companies should have a fast track to implementation for radical ideas which division managers believe have the potential to boost income substantially ­ even if they also believe those same ideas have the potential to cost the company a fortune if they do not work.

When an idea goes to the fast track, a very small team should review the idea, determine how to implement the idea while minimizing risk; such as by launching the product concept in one market initially, testing the operational overhaul in a single office, build a prototype and take it to the dealers, etc. Sometimes, however, the idea will be so radical that the best move will be to implement immediately, before your competition has the same idea.

It is important that any risk reduction action should aim to reduce risk in the event of failure rather than to dilute the innovativeness of the idea. One way to do this is provide division managers with discretionary budgets for high risk, innovative projects.

But why stop at adding a fast track to implementation? Why not provide flexible evaluation of ideas? Thus normal ideas would go through a highly structured evaluation process. Radical ideas would take a fast track approach. Hot ideas would undergo a single evaluation and so on.

Conclusion

In other words, taking an innovative approach to evaluation can lead to successful implementation of more innovative ideas. And that’s what innovation is all about, isn’t it?

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.

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