How to Create a Successful Innovation Pipeline

| By TMA World

Can you manage an innovation pipeline in the way you can manage marketing and sales pipelines?

Yes, according to Dylan Minor, Paul Brook, and Josh Bernoff (Data From 3.5 Million Employees Shows How Innovation Really Works, Harvard Business Review, October 9, 2017).

One of the authors, Dylan Minor, analyzed five years of data from 154 public companies covering 3.5 million employees.  The companies used an idea management system called Spigit to track and process ideas from their people. Spigit functions somewhat like Facebook – employees post ideas, get votes (likes), give or respond to feedback, and develop the ideas into innovations, e.g. process improvements, or new products.

Based on analysis of the data, they concluded innovation is a science:

“The variables that make for a successful innovation program are independent of whether the company is seeking disruptive or incremental innovations.  It doesn’t matter whether they’re asking for process or product innovation, what industry the company is in, or even, for the most part, whether the company is large or small.”

The key variable across the companies was the ideation rate, i.e. the number of ideas approved by management divided by the total number of active users in the system.

What variables fueled the ideation rate?  The authors identified four:

  1. Scale: A successful innovation program needs lots of people participating.  The underlying logic is the wisdom of the crowds: a large mass of participants will always out-ideate a small group of smart people.  The companies – on average – generated one idea for every four participants.
  2. Frequency: To succeed, a company should create frequent idea challenges for participants.  These challenges help foster a culture of innovation as well as help produce more ideas going into the pipeline.  On average, it took five ideas to generate one a company assessed to be worth implementing.
  3. Engagement: As well as people contributing ideas, a lot of other people are needed to appraise the ideas and determine how they could be improved.  
  4. Diversity: A idea management system doesn’t produce great results with a narrowly defined set of participants, e.g. engineers.  Input is needed from across the organization, particularly from those closest to the action, e.g. sales people, customer support staff, or those implementing a manufacturing process.

The innovation pipeline idea is a systematic approach to generating a steady flow of actionable ideas at a time when change is accelerating. One way to look at the flow of ideas is in terms of a divergent and convergent thinking process.  At the beginning, divergent ideas are fed into the pipeline on say the topic of lowering response times to customer inquiries.  In the pipeline, some ideas will ‘weaken’ while others become ‘stronger’ and even converge with other ideas.  The informal collaboration in the early stages (e.g. Likes and Commentary) could be formalized later by the formation of a dedicated innovation team to operationalize and profit from the idea.

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