Evaluating great (or not) ideas

One of the aspects of the innovation process on which I have been focusing a lot of thought lately is the evaluation of ideas. Assuming you have a process for generating and collecting ideas, how do you decide which ones are worth exploring further? And, once you have dug a little deeper, how do you decide whether to keep going, or when to stop? I was just reading a post on Escape from Cubicle Nation: Is your business idea the next YouTube or a Jump to Conclusions Mat where Pamela lists some good guidelines for assessing your business idea’s potential. I guess the only real concern I have is that the guidelines mix the evaluation of the idea with the self-evaluation of the individual with the idea – this is not necessarily wrong, I am just looking at the more isolated problem of evaluating ideas on their own.

I have also been reading the book Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want by Curtis R. Carlson and William W. Wilmot, which I highly recommend. It describes an innovation management approach from SRI International. There are a few ideas I like in this book. A fundamental point that I like is their definition of innovation – essentially that it is not innovation until it creates value for a customer. This feeds into the meat of the approach, which focuses on the analyses of Need, Approach, Benefits, and Competition (NABC). I will not try to explain their approach – the authors do a much, much better job of it than I ever could. A key characteristic of the analysis, to me, is that it is not 100-page document. It is a succinct, few-page description of the overall value proposition.

Coming from the technical side of things as I do, it is my natural tendency start with an Approach – with a really cool piece of technology, some really cool solution – and then to try to prove that it fulfills some need. Unfortunately this often leads to really cool solutions which nobody wants.

This is, of course, the wrong way to do things from a business perspective. From the business side, you always want to start with a compelling customer need. You can then look at how the competition fills that need, and assess whether there is room for a new solution. Only after that do you start looking at your solution approach, and its benefits. Using this approach probably has a higher success rate in terms of making sellable solutions. However, using it exclusively leaves many opportunities for ground-breaking, technology-driven advancements.

In the real world, you need both approaches. What appeals to me in the NABC approach is the emphasis on the fact that, no matter where your idea comes from, or what your focus is, you need to be able to address all 4 of these areas. If your idea comes from the techie side, and is focused on Approach, then this framework forces you to come up with the Need and Competition answers. If your idea comes out of marketing or elsewhere on the business side, then it forces you to at least look at the approach early on. The best thing (in my opinion) is that, in order to address all 4 of these areas, you must draw on expertise from multiple functional groups, thus creating the collaboration which is needed no matter what approach you take. It also encourages us to put ideas in front of customers/prospects early in the process.

Another thing I like about this approach is that the NABC analysis evolves with time. This gives us a tool for continuously evaluating the value proposition as we move through the innovation process with a given idea, giving us a decision tool to help us decide when we have invested enough in an idea.

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The Next Big Language – WHY?

I have been doing some work lately teaching myself some of the basics of Ruby, Python and a couple of other languages. As I was working with these languages, I was suddenly hit with a question – why? Over the course of my career, I have programmed in a lot of languages (somewhere around 20 that I have actually used to do useful work, I think). I am sure many of you can say the same thing. And do you know what? They all suck in one way or another! I have seen language’s popularity come and go. I have seen arguments in person, in newsgroups, and all over the web which bordered on religious fanaticism. Even as I write this, a good discussion continues in response to The Next Big Language.

Again, I ask myself “why?”

Looking back over projects in which I have participated, led, observed, or otherwise been involved, I cannot think of one where the success of failure (or degree of success – failure is not usually absolute) of the project was due to the limitations of the programming language. Nor has the programming language been the determining factor in the cost of the project, or the quality or the maintainability of the code.

There are so many factors which are accepted to have much greater impact on the course of a project than the choice of language/technology – requirements, architecture, realistic planning and tracking, and proper resourcing to name a few – that I find the whole debate around programming languages to be somewhat meaningless in the real world (actually, I find it more annoying than meaningless).

This is not to say that I do not believe we should always be innovating and inventing new ways of doing things (including programming languages). It does mean, however, that it is highly unlikely that any of these language advancements (or The Next Big Language, whatever it is) will make a significant difference in software development in either a corporate IT or commercial product development world – at least not any time soon.

Where does Innovation live?

This is a question that has been challenging me for a number of years now. In most organizations I have seen, both R&D and Marketing/Product Management believe that they own the innovation process for the company. And, they frequently both behave as though they do, and run along in their own independent directions, often at odds with each other.

Just to clarify here, I am talking about the innovation process, not the sources of great ideas – ideas can (and should) come from all parts of the organization, and beyond. I am talking about the process by which the generation, collection, evaluation, and potential implementation of ideas is made purposeful, continuous, and sustainable, as opposed to serendipitous and accidental.

The problem I see is that neither Marketing nor R&D by themselves knows enough to own the process entirely. Marketing is (quite rightly) focused outwards – customers, prospects, markets, analysts. This allows them to analyse all of this information and decide where our products should go. My problem is that I do not believe that this, in itself, is enough. It is pretty good for incremental, evolutionary development on reasonably mature product. However, I do not believe that this process of data collection and analysis will lead to revolutionary, transformational product ideas or enhancements.

On the other hand, R&D is (again, quite rightly) focused on technology, or how to get things done, and on better ways to get things done. This allows them to come up with cool new solutions to problems. Unfortunately, on its own, it also frequently leads to cool new solutions which nobody wants (or at least, not enough to pay for). However, without this “technology push”, how do we know the art of the possible, and how can we introduce transformation product improvements into our business?

Add to this mix the distrust between Marketing and R&D found in many organizations, and it is a wonder innovation happens at all. And the fact is that although innovation does happen within this structure, it is frequently accidental. It would be nice to be able to make this process more predictable and purposeful (I will write another day on my thoughts around whether it makes sense to make innovation predictable).

I am rapidly coming to believe that the only way to really get control of this process is to break down the barrier between Marketing and R&D, and create a truly collaborative process for innovation. How to do this is still a mystery to me, though I have some ideas. I would be very interested in hearing other’s ideas and experiences in this area.

My Tablet PC World (part 2)

So, on to my current Tablet PC setup. I am currently using a Motion Computing LE1600 running Vista Ultimate, Office 2007 (including OneNote) and MindManager Pro 6. I have loved this computer since the day I got it. It is obvious that I have a preference for slate tablets. The work that I do on a tablet is in tablet mode. I also have a laptop for doing development and other high load actvities, so I guess I am spoiled (though it is a pain carrying both around when I travel). The way I use my tablet at work is this:

  • In meetings, or when brainstorming, researching, designing, etc., I use my LE1600 as a tablet, and work almost exclusively in OneNote, MindManager, and IE;
  • When I am at a desk, I have a stand for my LE1600 (note that the LE1600 does not come with a stand – what I ended up buying was a desktop book stand from a library/bookstore supplier), as well as a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse. Since I have a wireless network, I can just place my tablet on the stand, use it at my desk, and then grab it and take it to a meeting, etc.
  • I try very hard to never plug my tablet into anything – to me it sort of defeats the purpose. I have a regular and an extended battery with my LE1600, as well as a second extended battery and a charger. This way, I just keep hot swapping the extended batteries, and keeping the other charging. This also means that when I moving around, I can have 7-9 hoursof battery life. This is one reason I prefer the slate to a convertible – I find convertibles have battery lifetimes more characteristic of a laptop – and I wanted more.

Really the only complaint I have ever had with my LE1600 is with the power connector. Very early on, the connector where the power supply plugs into the tablet developed connection problems, to the point that the unit will not charge or run off AC. This ceased to matter when I got the spare battery and charger, but was part of my reason for doing so. I should point out that I had the exact same problem with my TC1000 – I had it repaired twice by Compaq, and it always came back. it just seems to be an inherent problem with a computer you are moving around like a tablet (I would be interested to hear if anyone else has had similar problems with other brands of tablet).

There are other applications which I have used with the tablet, but OneNote and MindManager are the main ones. What would I like to see? As I said before, better ink support in Office, IE, and in Windows in general would be great (yes, Vista is an improvement, but the ink support still feels like it is pasted on top of the “real” mode of interaction – I do not know what “better” looks like, or I would have written it!). I would also like to see more ink-aware applications. I think there have been two big challenges to this in the past – one being the development support on the tablet, and the second being marketing of the tablet platform in general. I will not get into either of these now, I think both warrant their own posts. I would also like to see improved voice input on the tablet – I would love to be able to just dictate documents into Word or PowerPoint, and have the results be worth the effort. This has come a long way in the last few years, but does not seem to be quite there yet.

There are several very cool tablet accessories out there, some of which I have tried and just never gotten round to buying. One worth mentioning is InkGestures from Jumping Minds. I suspect I will buy a copy of this as soon as there is a version for Word 2007.

My Tablet PC World (part 1)

As I said before, I am a really big fan of Tablet PCs. They fulfill a vision I had almost 20 years ago about what a great form factor for a personal computer would be. So, I thought I would talk a bit about my experiences with Tablets.

My first Tablet PC was a Compaq TC1000 that I got back in 2003. Despite the fact that it was pretty underpowered for what I do, I absolutely loved it. Well, maybe that is not entirely true. At first, I found it a little awkward, and I found some aspects of it disappointing. I was mostly disappointed about how hard it was to do everyday things like wirte a Word document or create a presentation by writing and having it convert to text.

What I ended up doing was to get rid of all my other computers. I had no desktop computer, no laptop, and I even got rid of my keyboard for a while. I worked this way for about 6 months. What this forced me to do was to learn how best to accomplish my work in a tablet environment.

The first thing I learned is that converting writing to text was not the best way to work on the tablet (at least not for what I do). Microsoft OneNote became my number one application. Much of my work relates to research, idea generation, and meetings, and OneNote has been the centre of it for 4+ years now. I have also been using MindJet’s MindManager for several years now, and I use it almost as much as OneNote.

I also learned that I had to break out of our modern tendancy to format things as we go. I know that I have always had a tendancy to try to make things pretty as I go. The tablet has forced me to focus on getting ideas down – dumping my thoughts, so to speak. Then, if I convert it to text at some point, I can edit and format it (actually, if I am smart, I pass it on to someone much more adept than I am at making things pretty).

My biggest disappointment has been (and remains) the lack of integration of pen interaction with the main tools in office work – Internet Explorer and the Microsoft Office suite. It should be much simpler to do simple things like create a document, edit a spreadsheet, send an eMail, perform a web search, without reverting to the TIP (which I hate, for the most part). It should also be easier for a left handed person to work (why is OneNote the only Office application that lets you switch the scroll bar on the left hand side?)

That’s all for now – in my next post I will talk about my current setup, and things I would like to see in the Tablet PC world.

Welcome to my blog

Well, I have been meaning to start this for some time, but like everyone, other things just get in the way.

A bit about myself. I have been working in the world of technology for 20-odd years. Currently, I am VP of Technology at Whitehill Technologies, Inc., where we specialize in Document Composition and Document Automation technologies, in the Legal and Financial services spaces. Prior to that I worked on internet conferencing using early VoIP, and on large military communications projects. Before even that, I worked in satellite control, and remote sensing. Going way back to university, my focus was on theoretical physics and astrophysics.

Currently my interests revolve around most aspect of software development, from technologies to management, and in the area of defining sustainable, repeatable processes for innovation within technology organizations. I also have a particular interest in Tablet PC technologies – I have been using one for several years, and I love it.

On the personal side, I still have a strong interest in all aspects of science, especially physical sciences, as well as philosophy and comparative religion. In addtion, I am into music, playing guitar (badly, I am sorry to say), and reading almost anything I can lay my hands on.