But I want to be Disruptive!

I have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of years thinking about the process of innovation, different types of innovation, and how to innovate in a small but established organization versus a startup organization. I was reading Innovator’s Dilemmas: Do You Really Need To Be Disruptive? over on consultaglobal this weekend, and got to comparing some of Jose’s thoughts with work I have done in the last year.

As Jose says in that post, he is more interested in the process of defining a product roadmap in terms of gradual innovation, and in managing product portfolios. We have been very successful with this type of innovation, having a strong product management process for our existing product suite. In my role, I have been more interested in how we do larger scale innovation – how do we come up with the innovations now which are going to drive our growth 2+ years from now?

I have defined an innovation cycle as shown below.

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Recognizing that disruptive innovation is, well, disruptive, as this cycle is traveled counter-clockwise starting from the upper right, we go from a high-chaos, low-process environment to progressively higher process and lower chaos.

In this model, the upper right quadrant represents what we are really good at, evolutionary innovation driven by product management.  The upper right quadrant represents the starting point – the idea generation engine. This is traditionally a hit and miss process of collecting ideas from various parts of the organization (or just a few people), and trying to pick which ones to invest time and money in. It is my belief that this activity can be wrapped in a process without destroying the creativity needed to really come up with ideas. Among the activities I consider important in this quadrant are:

  • Establish some context for innovation (see this earlier post)
  • Get ideas from everybody, not just R&D or Product Management
  • Get out and talk to customers
  • Involve your staff who are in front of customers, especially professional services people if you have them
  • Engage in structured/facilitated brainstorming with groups from various cross-sections of your company
  • Know how you are going evaluate ideas and decide which ones to investigate more deeply

The last point is important – it is no use having lots of ideas if you have no way to evaluate them. No organization can go deep on all the ideas generated, and a small organization can only really attack a couple. See this earlier post for my thoughts on using the Needs, Approach, Benefits, Competition (NABC) approach. At the end of this stage, and ideas should have a reasonable Needs definition, with a rough indication of the other three categories.

The next quadrant is what I have called Play. This is where ideas which survive the evaluation in the Ideas stage and start to play with them, flesh them out, create prototypes, and generally move the NABC definition forward. Early in this phase, the Approach needs to be clarified, while the Needs are evaluated more deeply.  Later in this stage, if a viable Approach is identified, and the Needs continue to make sense, then the Benefits and Competition need to be addressed (note that in reality, it is never anywhere near this linear, but this is for the benefit of description). By the end of this stage, we should be able to present a fairly strong value proposition for those ideas which have survived the process.

The next stage is to Build the products (ok, probably only one) for which the value proposition seems best. I will not get into the build process, except to say that the NABC analysis should be kept at the forefront throughout the process, and not be afraid to make hard decisions if things stop making sense.

The final stage is the Evolution stage, where the product moves into the incremental, evolutionary development cycle of a completed product. Note that for a new product, there may be some iteration between Build and Evolve.

Finally, the cycle is closed by having ideas from ongoing product evolution feed back into the Ideas stage.

So, is it ever this neat and clean and linear? Well, no. But that does not mean it is not valuable to have a model which you at least pretend you are following!

Playing to the critics

This is a follow-on post to my earlier discussion of New Product Ideas – How hard can it be?. In that post I talked a bit about what I consider to be the “fundamental” questions in coming up with a new business idea:

  1. What do you want to be (multinational, micro-ISV, etc.)?
  2. What domain do you want to work in (horizontal apps, specific vertical, specific technology, etc.)?

I also promised to discuss, in a later post, what do once you have figured out these two simple questions. Sorry it has taken so long to get back to this.

Getting Ideas

So now you know what kind of a business you want to build, and you have an idea of the space you want to be in. Where do you go from here? A quick Google found several hits with suggestions for generating new product ideas. Here are a few (I am not endorsing any of them – they are just a few from the first page of hits ):

There are a few random thoughts that I have on the subject. A big one to me is the fact that you cannot spend all of your time “playing to the critics” (hence the title of this post). In the software world, playing to the critics means, among other things, trying to do what the analysts and marketing gurus and other “experts” say you should. I am not saying you should not read and absorb as much as you can from these sources, and indeed from any source you can. However, the ideas ultimately have to come from you – they cannot be analysed into existence, and you can wait for someone else to tell you what to do.

So where do ideas come from? Well, getting ideas is like anything else. It takes practice, and the more you practice doing it, the easier it gets. Here are a few of the approaches I use:

  • Keep a notebook for ideas (I know, everyone suggests this). I personally use my Tablet PC for this, using a combination of OneNote and Mindjet. I like this because I typically have my Tablet with me all the time, and it allows me to capture ideas I get anytime and anywhere – in meetings, seminars, anywhere.
  • Set aside time for brainstorming. Whether it is daily or weekly or whatever, it is good to set aside time brainstorm. It will be hard at first, but it gets easier with time. I will admit that sometimes this is my best approach for getting ideas. Other times, ideas come at me so fast using the first method that I do not really need to set aside time for this. I try to anyway.
  • Read as much as you can. Learn new things as much as you can. Read anything. Read web sites. Read blogs. Read books. Read magazines. Read things in your area of expertise. Read things in other areas (I find many of my most novel ideas come from “cross-over” concepts that I pick up). Read, read, read, read.

Ultimately, these are approaches that work for me. You will have to find ways that work for you. Back before my Tablet PC, I used to keep several flipchart pads on the wall of my office. I would fill these with ideas, tear off the pages and tape them up all over my walls.

An important thing to remember is not to filter or judge your ideas at the same time you are generating them. Just collect them. Also remember, the best way to get good ideas is to get LOTS of ideas.

Evaluating Ideas

Speaking of this, how do you know which ideas are good ones, and which ones are, well, not?

I try to set aside a regular time every week or two to look through my accumulated ideas. When evaluating my ideas, I look at several things.

Firstly, I filter out the ideas that are just plain stupid. This is hard to do sometimes, because I do not generally like to admit to myself that I have stupid ideas. But I do! Lots of them. Sometimes I look back on ideas I came up with randomly in meetings a couple of weeks earlier, and I really have no idea what I was thinking. Do not dismiss things too easily, though, because sometimes what seems like a crazy idea just seems crazy because it is for something really original. I never throw ideas away – and sometimes ideas on the crazy list come back to life.

Secondly, I compare ideas against the “what I want to be” questions. This allows me to eliminate ideas that are just completely out of scope for what I am trying to do. Some ideas are great ideas, but just do not fit the scope of what I am trying to do. Again, I never throw them away. Maybe next year, I will have changed my mind on what I want to be. Or maybe I will come up with a way to change the scope of the idea and make it fit.

Finally, I am left with a list with a list of ideas which are not obviously crazy, and which seem to fit the model of what I want to do. What next? Well, some time back I posted on here about exactly that. It all comes back to NABC:

  • Does the idea fulfill a real need?
  • Do I have a credible approach?
  • What is the benefit versus cost of the idea?
  • Who are the competitors? What are the competing approaches?

Personally, I still find this the hardest part of the problem. Right now, the approach I use is to transfer all the “surviving” ideas to a spreadsheet, with columns for each of NABC. I start by quickly going through and filling out what I already know for each idea. For some, I understand what need I want to fill. For others, I have come up with a really great approach to filling a not very well defined need (hey – I AM a techie afterall!). This is just a way of capturing what I already know, so it does not take very long. Then I go back and try to complete the need for all of the ideas. This is always enlightening – it still surprises me how hard it is to succinctly express the need fulfilled by an idea, even when I think I know it.

Ultimately, at this stage, I am trying to identify those ideas for which I CANNOT have some answer to the four questions. This filters out a good chunk of ideas at this stage – many seemingly good ideas do not pass this gate.

So what next? Well, the ideas which survive this initial analysis are worth taking a deeper look at. And that will have to wait for another post – hey, it is 1 in the morning!

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.