I’ve been reading the book “Innovation Tournaments” by Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich of the Wharton School. The book sets out a methodology (the “tournament” of the title) for companies to generate and systematically winnow down innovation ideas to eliminate all but the most exceptional opportunities.
Two brief observations:
One, the authors suggest that almost any company’s innovation performance would be helped by increasing the number of ideas going into the top of the funnel. Early-stage evaluation (a la “Discovery-Driven Growth“) is cheap and fast, so the cost of, say, doubling the number of ideas reviewed isn’t significant when compared with an overall innovation budget.
[It was interesting to read today's post by tech venture capitalist Fred Wilson, in which he outlined his approach to finding new opportunities: (1) making public his strategies, ideas, and passions so that entrepreneurs know in advance what he's looking for, and (2) meeting with as many people as he can, every day. In short, a strategy to add lots of opportunities to the top of his funnel.]
Two, along with the sheer number of ideas, the variability of the ideas is important. High variability increases the possibility that a truly outstanding idea is found (given that truly outstanding ideas, like 7-footers with great athletic ability, are few and far between). In that event, increasing the number of ideas coming into the funnel increases the likelihood that a truly outstanding idea is looked at.
Ironically, methodologies like Six Sigma seek to limit the variability of processes. When (mis)applied to disciplines like innovation, they are very successful at impeding the success of the effort.