Three Questions Leaders Should Ask About Innovation

February 19, 2016

Contributor: Christy Pettey

Trying to predict exactly how an innovation should manifest is often pointless and sometimes dangerous.

It's well known that getting large enterprises to innovate requires a Herculean effort. But according to Mary Mesaglio, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, a simple set of three questions can keep innovation on track.

“Many leaders fall into the trap of trying to tackle innovation challenges simultaneously, which confuses things,” says Mesaglio. “Instead, it's critical that they ask themselves these three questions in this order.”

No. 1: Does This Idea Have Value?

Every great idea should demonstrate a deep understanding of who it will help and how. In other words, before you make anything new, know exactly who you are making it for.

Early prototypes render a vague idea more concrete by describing it using more than words. “This could be a drawing, a photo, a video, a simulation - anything that moves the idea from totally conceptual to somewhat tangible,” says Mesaglio. “That’s not to say that the prototype should lock in a particular solution. Its purpose is to clarify a new idea sufficiently to be able to make an early call on whether to pursue it or not.”

No. 2: What Shape Should This Idea Take?

There are two further important points to consider here - will this idea further the strategy and how big could the value could be?

The next step is to shape the idea more precisely, beyond the rough early prototype. The critical thing at this stage is to resist trying to predict everything in advance, although security or regulatory considerations should now be included.

Teams should keep shaping their idea and refining their hypothesis about its value, in conjunction with the eventual users of the innovation, until they reach the point where they have a minimum marketable product. The product is then released to a small group of users. The third and final question depends on what and how much success the product garners with that small initial group.

No. 3: How Do We Scale This Idea?

Here the term "scale" refers to industrializing a product or solution for large-scale use by many users. Many IT leaders unwittingly ask the scale question together with the first one, but it’s crucial to leave it until last.

“This is because when you ask the customer-value question and the industrial-scale question at the same time, the conversation about scale tends to hijack the conversation about value, and great ideas are lost,” warns Mesaglio. “How would we do this? What would the impact be on the systems we have? Where would we get the data? This implicitly means that the value question is often forgotten, leading to the perfect execution of a value-less idea.”

We are so focused on execution that we don't adequately ask the value question, or we execute only those things which we are comfortably certain we can scale, leading to incrementalism and a lack of desired change. This is a colossal waste of enterprise money and time. To avoid this, leaders should ensure they are separating the exploration of whether an idea has customer value, from how to industrialize it, and be sure to ask the value question first.

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