Idea Gridlock. Make way for the Backend of Innovation.

Many of the CEOs we talk to tell us that they have more growth ideas than they know what to do with. It seems like there is a universal love affair with generating ideas but less enthusiasm when it comes to figuring out which ideas are the most commercially viable and how to actually implement.  This imbalance causes a backlog of ideas, begging the question: do too many ideas stall out innovation?

This quandary is rooted in what is known as the “Frontend of Innovation” which is the idea generation part of the process and the “Backend of Innovation” which is the strategy and implementation of these ideas. Companies with an established innovation program have these two elements in balance as a result of a clear process and people with the right skillsets for both activities. Innovation stalls out when there is a bandwidth issue- either there are no analysts on staff to evaluate each opportunity or there are too few of them and like the patent officers at the USPTO they never see the light of day.

As much as we love the creative idea generation process here at the Studio, we are also keenly aware that ideas are a dime a dozen. Extensive market validation is needed to prioritize, incubate and develop the concepts with the most legs. Just like with a start-up, market validation means proving (or disproving) feasibility, demand and profitability. Singular devotees of the Frontend of Innovation hate talking about this reality, it makes their skin crawl. This is because putting these limitations in people’s minds during ideation limits the creative output and perhaps blocks a breakthrough.  We agree, but with generative ideation and limited validation it is easy to see how the backlog ensues.  Without a quantitative way to gauge ideas, they can all appear equally appealing. Paralysis sets in when executives cannot confidently select growth opportunities for investment.

So now, we will give the Backend of Innovation a rare moment in the spotlight. It doesn’t get a lot of airtime because it is the less glamorous workhorse of the innovation process but without it, innovation suffocates from idea overcrowding.  Much like the tired funnel diagram, the Backend sets up a process and framework to assess ideas and eliminate the weakest from the development pipeline.

Market size, consumer insights, competitive pressure, business model and return on investment are just the beginning of the factors that should be assessed before moving the concept forward to pilot.  If the concept doesn’t meet internal opportunity size hurdles there is no sense in moving it forward for further feasibility assessment and iteration. Figure out what other factors are critical go/no-go stage gates for your organization to narrow the funnel. The basic questions are: How big is the market? What is the competitive pressure and does this represent a better alternative? Does the end user want and accept this solution? What is the business model and operational factors involved?

After the concept clears the stage gate consider running a pilot, not so much to test market adoption but rather to gather market feedback for refinement and iteration. Pilots can be expensive and time consuming- another argument for why it is better to have a few validated ideas over a treasure chest of lottery tickets.