The two parts of innovation

Innovation has two parts: ideation and commercialization. Ideation, the first part, is all about ideas, and this the part of innovation that comes to mind when we think of innovation. Commercialization, the second part, is all about products. This is the part we don’t think of, and this is the part we’ve got to do better.

Ideation happens readily, and it happens at the whiteboard, that mystical device that can focus the universe’s creativity onto a 3 foot buy 4 foot sheet. In front of the whiteboard it’s exciting, fast, frenzied; ideas jump directly from ether to whiteboard, and we are only the unconscious conduits. With a dry erase marker in each hand and several other colors at the ready, markers fly about as if guided by a spiritual force; flow charts magically appear with all the blocks and all the right arrows; shirt sleeves are used as erasers to keep up with the flow of ideas. This is what comes to mind when we think about innovation. But this is the easy part. Fact is, we already have enough good ideas, and what we need is better execution, better commercialization.

Commercialization is a different game altogether. Once ideas are created and documented in and understandable way, the real work, the difficult work, begins.  The biggest fundamental challenge is how to choose between a recently invented whiteboard idea (with no revenue stream) and a modification of something that sells today (with an existing revenue stream). Traditional net present value techniques aren’t the right answer because they always favor improvements of the existing stuff, and any ranking process must guess at future sales for the whiteboard idea, and guesses are not sufficient to carry the day. It’s a tough road, and a detour may be in order.

As advocate for the whiteboard ideas, choose the path less traveled, take the detour. Figure out where the company wants to go, understand the destination. Then, review all the non-whiteboard ideas, the improvements to existing stuff, and see if those ideas, on their own, can get the company to its new destination. It’s my bet they cannot, that there will be gaps. (But if they can, the whiteboard ideas are dead in the water.) With gaps defined, there is now a rationale, now a reason, to believe in the whiteboard ideas. Finally, some leverage.

Staring with the gap analysis, sprinkle in the best whiteboard ideas, and see what it looks like, see where the ideas could take the company. My bet is the picture looks better with the whiteboard ideas in the mix; my bet is there will now be plausible scenarios where the company can achieve its desired future state. (Plausible scenarios may not sound like much, but they’re a whole lot better than knowing you won’t make it). And once company leaders see how the whiteboard ideas improve the situation, some may get sufficiently jazzed to swap out a few more of the improve-the-old-stuff ideas for more whiteboard ideas.

It’s extremely difficult to challenge the status quo, to go head-to-head with existing revenue streams, but that’s exactly what whiteboard ideas must do. To carry the day, company leaders must say yes to whiteboard ideas at the expense of improve-the-old-stuff ideas. That’s a particularly difficult hurdle since business unit leaders are judged on hitting their numbers (thankfully). The upside of moving the company closer to its desired future state must outweigh the downside of saying no to investments in predictable revenue streams. Let’s be clear, this can only be an emotional decision.

With allocation of resources, the whiteboard idea is off and running, though not home free. It will be continually challenged by the established business units, who, at every turn, will ask to judge the whiteboard idea using improve-the-old-stuff criteria.  Talk about the gap analysis where possible.

I’ve found ideation far more fun than commercialization, and commercialization far more difficult than ideation. But like peanut butter and jelly or Oreos and milk, neither has meaning without the other. We’ve got the ideation stuff down, but our execution/commercialization stuff needs serious work.

Though not glamorous, we’ve got to improve the commercialization element of innovation if we are to realize more of its benefits.

4 Responses to “The two parts of innovation”

  • Ronen:

    Actually, SUCCESSFUL innovation has a third (but first in order) part – analysis…

  • I totally agree with Mr Ronen! And as for ideation and commercialization – I know lot of people who find ideation very difficult and risky, but treat commercialization as a sort of game and are fond of the very process itself. Different people – different strong and weak sides!

  • Mike, you hit the nail on the head. Not only is the ideation/commercialization conundrum creating stalemates on the engineering side. Wait until the discussion hits the marketing/sales – R&D/ops interface. Change is pereceived as risky and disruptive and there are fiefdoms and the status quo to preserve at all phases of business development. Eventually a decision must be made, and that usually is to make no decision (preserve “the way things are”) vs. move slightly outside the company’s comfort level on the side of commercialized innovation. The eternal dialectic.

  • The ideation/commercialization dichotomy points out the importance of portfolio management tools to help companies balance the risk and reward of their investments in new product development and allocate resources to the right MIX of projects. It is also consistent the idea that assessment of a new product concept must answer two fundamental questions: 1) Is there a market opportunity? and 2) Is there a business opportunity?

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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