🧐 The problem(s) with ideation in innovation programs

🧐 The problem(s) with ideation in innovation programs
Photo by Patrick Tomasso / Unsplash

Whether you deal with an intrapreneurship program or another flavor of corporate innovation, chances are that you are starting with an ideation phase. Over the years, the very existence of such an initial step has become a vividly blinking red flag for me.

The reasons are that ideation is...

  1. Inherently limited by what is acceptable within a specific corporate culture. Even if culturally divergent ideas are initially accepted (cannibalization of a core business), they will swiftly be crunched or reframed within the next few next steps of juries and go/no-gos);
  2. Only good for fixing issues "at hand," offering an incremental improvement on which the employee has a direct experience, and generally speaking, sustaining continuous operational improvement in a short feedback loop. This is why it worked when Toyota needed to improve production chains, not so much for innovation (as in "changing the market");
  3. Only applying to short-term decision-making as a longer-term perspective requires an eco-systemic view of the market and the organization, which in turn requires a collective with complementary skill sets. This is why sales, engineering, or marketing people rarely find good new products or service ideas by themselves;
  4. Inferring the market is stable enough so that a "good" idea one has today will still be pertinent once refined and industrialized three years from now (see above: short-term);
  5. Overestimating the ratio of usable ideas will be sufficient to make the whole process of sifting through the background noise of poorer ideas worth it. Also, optimistically, take for granted that a jury of sorts will be able to identify such ideas (see above: corporate culture);
  6. Trusting that if everything goes right anyway, the next steps following up the ideation part will be powerful enough to polish uncut gems. In practice, these steps are usually starved for resources and oftentimes change the initial idea so much that the selected intrapreneur feels it's not her idea anymore (see above: corporate culture).

To summarize, one cannot be against the idea of asking employees to ideate but...

The limits and narrow focus of ideation makes it, at best, a poor fit for any serious corporate innovation program. The general enthusiasm for ideation certainly comes from the engineering background of many corporate managers involved in innovation programs? Understand that still, they often deal with a linear and mechanistic view of innovation. And yes, there is certainly a price to pay for over ten years of spray-painting one-hour design thinking seminars all over the place and trusting reductive double-diamond frameworks as the get-go solution to any innovation problem.

And there's also the humanistic bias of thinking that "our people will know better." Within a good corporate culture environment, they will certainly care – which is amazing enough – but it doesn't mean they will know. If they care, though, they might want to explore further and strategically help an innovation program in critical ways. But asking them for the "good idea" to start with is essentially setting them up for failure and letting demotivation build-up and eventually snowball into widespread negative feelings about innovation. Β 

All this being said, I won't tell you that an incubation program starting with an ideation phase won't ever work. I can only share how, since 2012, I have seen this format work so very few times that I actively try to avoid getting involved in those.

Innovation is a deep and wide field that requires a diversity of approaches.

Ideation or not, at the very least, if you see a one-size-fits-all approach at play in your company, just know that something is very wrong.