“It’s such a pity. He had the talent to play for Australia, but not the application.” How many times have you heard that expression about an individual who seemed to have a natural borne talent that was never fully applied? The raw talent was not enough for the individual and their supporters to avoid the feeling of disappointment that an unfulfilled dream brings.
It’s a very similar story in business. Not so much about unfulfilled dreams of individuals scaling the corporate ladder, but about unfulfilled promises of good ideas.
Governments, think tanks and concerned individuals exhort us, as a nation, to become more productive through innovation. Organisations regularly have brainstorming sessions integrated into their development of strategy. Thinking outside that ubiquitous box is encouraged. Yet, as Cameron England* writes “Have a guess how many of Australia’s top 50 companies have at their very heart a good idea? Not mineral resources, selling other people’s goods or repackaging money in increasingly intricate ways, but an actual good idea which spawned the genesis of a new business. It’s a pretty easy answer – none.”
So where do the good ideas go? Why don’t they see the light of day as much as they should as a country? Perhaps the starting point for contemplating this conundrum is closer to home within our own organisations.
In my experience, good ideas are scattered like seeds on barren ground and expected to flourish with insufficient attention paid to preparing the environment for the ideas to survive the politics of an organisation. To have our ideas survive and flourish, we must:
- Think of the idea and be able to communicate it simply;
- Plan for its implementation;
- Learn from our mistakes and;
- Persist in the face of competition for resources.
According to the Organisation for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) there are four types of innovation:
- Product innovation;
- Process innovation;
- Marketing innovation and;
- Organisational innovation.
Within each of these four types there are three levels of innovation:
- Solving an existing problem
- Building a commercially viable rotary compression engine;
- Solving an unmet, unstated need
- Text messaging;
- Creating a new field of endeavour
To maximise innovation in an organisation, diversity in the group applying their mind to the generation of the idea(s) is necessary. Increased diversity allows teams to see the whole picture, avoid group think and fulfil teamwork roles with higher skills and more knowledge than is possible with an individual or a small team of like-minded people.
Diversity may need to be evident in many contexts. For example;
- Thinking style
- Social skills
Diversity is required in the different roles of a team whose remit is to generate ideas. There needs to be people who obviously create ideas but there are other roles which are equally important. For example, team composition should comprise people who can sponsor the idea through the organisation, people who can take raw ideas and refine them and people who can facilitate a diverse group of people.
Ideas often stall even after receiving substantial budget through the efforts of a sponsor, because of the paucity of planning. In the excitement to get an idea developed or executed, people forget to complete one or more of:
- Resource planning for the people and equipment required to pilot or fully execute the idea;
- Budget planning for the costs and the source of funds;
- Milestone planning;
- Planning to integrate the new idea with business-as-usual;
- Stakeholder management planning;
- Risk management planning to eliminate the high consequence, high probability risks and;
- Contingency planning for those risks which cannot be eliminated
- Change management planning to understand the blockers and motivators to adoption of the new idea
When organisations do plan to implement new ideas, they often lack the specificity to ensure that the plans are implementable with low levels of unintended consequences. Many good new ideas have created problems in other areas of an organisation because they were not thought through well enough.
All new ideas, despite our best highly specific planning efforts, have some unintended consequences. Some will be good and some bad for our organisation. We have to be prepared, through our contingency planning, to learn about unintended consequences as they occur and adjust our actions to limit the negative consequences and understand and manage the positive consequences.
Further than that, for substantial new ideas, applying continuous improvement approaches such as DMAIC is necessary to fine tune the idea and learn from our mistakes. To apply DAMAIC we must:
- Define the new idea, using process maps and procedures
- Measure the outcomes of the new idea with defined performance indicators ensuring we use a mix of lead and lag indicators
- Analyse the performance indicators and look for unintended consequences
- Improve the idea and its outcomes
- Control the outcomes by understanding all of the consequences and their cause and measuring the impact on performance indicators
Other continuous improvement process and techniques may be applicable. The point is that we must measure the inputs and outputs of our idea and seek to refine the idea to better control both the use of inputs and the outputs.
All ideas will meet resistance of one kind or another. It may be political, budgetary, just the ‘not invented here’ variety or based on fears of what individuals may lose in the implementation of idea. There are many opportunities presented for ideas to die quietly or sometimes with a bang. It is the role of the sponsor and to a lesser extent the creator to display the persistence required to see good ideas to fruition.
Having the will to see a new idea through, especially if implementation is over a number of years, is often lacking in organisations with short time frames for strategic planning driven by short term shareholder gains. Often the issue, especially in the third and fourth year of the life of a good idea, is the competition for resources from other new good ideas.
Persistent sponsors continuously communicate the benefits and progress of the implementation of a good idea through case studies on early wins, and gain new supporters through demonstrating future benefits to stakeholders with a high degree of power. They also facilitate the solving of issues created by negative consequences.
A second airport in Sydney, very fast train travel between Sydney and Melbourne, the National Broadband Network and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are a few topical ideas accepted through an individual’s persistence or failed so far for the lack of it.
Good ideas of their own are not valuable. They become valuable when planning, learning and persistence are applied in good measure to create the environment in which the idea can take hold and be improved upon.
*Available at: http://www.thepunch.com/articles/australia-the-not-so-clever-country/. Accessed May 11, 2013.