How to Prioritize Innovation Work


by Salem Baer

More and more established companies are beginning to recognize the serious threat of disruption startups and younger companies are bringing to the industry. In an effort to keep up and complete, several companies are carving out an innovation lab, scale back process and oversight to help re-create the faster-speed and creativity found in many startups. However, after new teams are created or an innovation outpost is established, many get stuck.

In a recent study we conducted on hurdles to corporate innovation, one of the common problems named was a lack of vetting process for how projects are chosen. In short, teams struggle to know what they should be doing. In our interviews we heard two common approaches to vetting projects.

1) “Because I said so.”

Several cited receiving one-off initiatives subjectively chosen by executive leadership. “Because we don’t have strong metrics to apply to projects to determine the value, sometimes it’s just the boss’s opinion that determines where we focus,” the Senior Advisor at a large hospital research center shared with us; “If John says we’re going to work on this, than this is what we are going to work on.” Another interviewee shared that getting funding is essentially a game of mixing and matching executives with budget with ideas they liked: “It’s not very objective. It just depends on people’s whims– you’re looking for a sugar daddy to keep you funded. There’s no other rhyme or reason.”

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A high-power, skilled, entrepreneurially-minded team can’t be expected to work with passion on a project that was decided on by a whim. The slightest change in priorities will likely result in the funding for a project getting cut— and employees are not blind to that.

2) “Here’s a haystack. Find the needle please.”

On the other hand, many teams reported the opposite problem: regularly, they receive the output of other departments brainstorm/ideation session (Thanks?) and then are tasked with turning them into something. With this approach, the innovation team quickly becomes the crowded attic of good ideas with no home.

When we asked the Ventures Leader at a large tax software company about his biggest challenge, he shared, despite success developing and launching two successful products, “I’m afraid that anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere will be dumped here.”  “Innovation” often gets people thinking about ideation and outside-of-the-box-thinking. But as Nick Partridge, Senior Innovation Director at LPK writes, “Generating ideas is the fun (and frankly, easiest) part of innovation. The true challenge is prioritizing to find the ones that are equal parts desirable, feasible and viable.”

“Generating ideas is the fun (and frankly, easiest) part of innovation. The true challenge is prioritizing to find the ones that are equal parts desirable, feasible and viable.”

Don’t spend energy creating more and more haystacks. Instead, spend more thoughtful time finding the needles.

Indicators that you don’t have a good vetting process

You have regular innovation challenges (or call for ideas), but nothing gets launched out of those.

This may reveal there was not a strong enough basis to start the project in the first place; you didn’t start the “call for ideas” with a “why.” If projects are chosen on a whim, and they never seem to come “from the crowd,” you’ll actually demotivate the team.

You hear “We have a lack of time and resources” cited as the biggest roadblocks. Unfortunately, there will always be more good ideas than resources to pursue them. Success, therefore, depends on prioritizing and executing on the most promising ideas.

Solutions

Prioritize before ideation.

Without a crystal-clear objective, your mountain of post-it-note-suggestions will feel random and impossible to assess. Before ever making a call for submissions, guardrails should be put in place to ensure that ideas generated will be both relevant to your customers and actionable for your business.

We got the chance to talk with Amelia Gandara, Senior Market Intelligence Leader & Community Manager at Fuse, an open innovation platform inside of GE that accelerates the development of new products by opening up innovation challenges to the public

Before their team ever opens a challenge to the public, their proposed problem has to be tightly defined and meet a certain level of criteria. “We try not to run big ideation challenges,” Gandara explained, “Those are flashy and get a lot of participation. While it might be nice to tell leadership we had an event with 400+ contestants, you can’t do anything with that.”

Know which problem you’re seeking to solve before experimenting with “innovative” ways to generate ideas.

LPK’s Prioritization model.

With a narrowed focus, ideas generated from an ideation challenge will be more relevant and actionable. LPK, a global brand design agency, has a helpful prioritization model to drive further clarity and power through indecision and inaction.


Differential has helped dozens of companies go from ideation to full-stage development. If you need help prioritizing concepts or defining the scope of a project,  our Discovery Sprints are designed for you. In a Sprint, we help our partners discover, explore, and validate business opportunities; define product vision, and map out the key activities and experiences your product will offer. Feel free to reach out and share what you’re working on.

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