How to innovate remotely – Idea screening and selection post-Covid – Remote Choosing!

So far in this blog series we’ve presented opinions and tips on setting innovation challenges, on gathering inspiration for more unique ideas, for generating lots of relevant new ideas, and communicating those ideas for better effect – all within the context of a clear requirement for more distributed working in light of Covid.  This article is concerned with what we do when our ideation efforts have been successful and we are confronted with, hopefully, a large pile of ideas all waiting for a green light!

Non-Contact Decision-making

The first thing to note about this stage in the innovation process is that this is an activity that is about decision-making and choosing.  Remote working is likely to require much higher levels of transparency and structure in the processes we use for these tasks.  In a distributed working situation, we cannot so easily rely on our skills in reading and responding to individual behaviour and group dynamics.  Working in teams – especially teams that are not necessarily very familiar with one another – is a nuanced enterprise which requires high levels of trust, shared objectives, and an ability to reach genuine consensus.

Talking of consensus, it is worth pointing out that many teams we’ve worked with make the mistake of believing that consensus can be achieved by methods like scoring and averaging, or by voting.  This is not the case.  Reaching consensus on any matter – including on which idea(s) to expend any effort on – requires groups to agree on prioritisation.  The selection process should mean that all members of the group involved can support the decision that is made – even if the idea(s) selected were not their original first choices.  Averaging and voting as processes do not require that all parties need be satisfied with the outcome – and this can be dangerous!  We need project teams and stakeholders to be fully on board to support ideas as they progress, hopefully, towards implementation and commercial fruition.  Alienating key stakeholders by essentially ignoring their opinion may mean that you won’t always have the fair wind you need to get any new idea into play.

The Good is Often the Enemy of the Best – But Not Here

A second point to note is that most groups we work with seem convinced that there is a “best” idea amongst the large pile they have accumulated and that they are on a quest to analyse the embryonic contributions to death to ensure the “best” one rises to the top.  This is usually a fool’s errand!  In our experience, there is rarely a “best idea” – but hopefully a bunch of good, or even very good, opportunities to explore.  The simple truth is that, at this very early stage of a new idea’s life cycle, it is usually impossible to tell what “best” looks like.  We’re all for a systematic sorting of the ideas before you, but we try to encourage groups not to obsess too much about picking the “right” one to back from the get-go.

Even when we offer this advice, however, it’s clear that we are usually a lot more relaxed than the client about which ideas are selected to take forward.  The main reason we are relaxed is that we know that an effective exploration process will quickly, and cheaply, weed out those ideas that aren’t going to work or aren’t going to deliver the required/intended benefit.

And to be honest, an effective exploration process will be a much more objective way to assess, as well as develop, new ideas.

But before we get there, there does need to be some organised sorting and prioritisation… so read on.

Clarity aids Comparison

In situations where a focused innovation challenge is pursued and the process has included a set-piece idea generation session or period, then the task will involve sorting through potentially hundreds of ideas.  More ideas is good.  Much better to be choosing from lots of ideas rather than fewer.  Clearly, however, more ideas mean more work to sort and compare.

An absolute imperative to make this task significantly easier is to ensure that submitted ideas are communicated with the utmost clarity.  In smartcrowds we provide a structured template for idea submission which, if followed, will mean that all ideas have the same core structure:

  • What is the idea? (brief description)
  • Who is the intended customer?
  • What problem does the idea solve for this customer?
  • What benefit does the idea deliver for the customer?
  • In what way is this idea new compared to what is currently being done?

Brevity is key here.  Ideas described briefly, simply, and clearly will have a much better chance of moving forward.  Other people need to easily understand what the idea is.  For those tasked with sorting and comparing, brevity and clarity are godsends!  Being able to easily get the gist of the idea will make sure that the idea can be sorted in the first place.  If the idea isn’t clearly communicated, then the best that can be hoped for is that it is placed in a holding pattern until clarification can be achieved.  It can’t be emphasised enough – clarity of communication is a vital prerequisite for an idea’s success.

Criteria for Sorting and Selecting

So, notwithstanding the caveats listed above, we do need to have criteria that help us select the ideas upon which we are going to focus our efforts – at least in the first instance.  The most obvious of these is the extent to which the idea clearly aligns with what we’d set out as our innovation challenge.  Does it seem clear and obvious that the idea, if successfully implemented, will help with resolving the challenge?  This criterion can often provide a good first-cut filter.  We would not suggest that ideas that don’t immediately seem to align are then scrapped – it’s always possible to shape or re-craft ideas so that they can make a better fit.  But that’s for another day.  The first order of business is to identify those ideas that do fit well with our overall purpose.

The next thing we would usually look at is impact scope.  Scale of impact is another one of the big uncertainties in innovation, but there is usually something in a good idea description that suggests how much impact the idea could make against the innovation challenge.  Using paired comparisons, it should be possible to rank listed ideas by the scale of impact expected.

One of the features of smartcrowds that helps with this assessment is the ratings and “likes” that a given crowd attributes to ideas as they are posted.

Most often these ratings relate to how much impact individuals imagine the idea will deliver.  It is usually very clear where the weight of interest lies, and this can make a big difference in the initial sorting and selecting process.  Clearly, at this stage, this is based on gut feel only, but this is usually good enough to make a useful comparison.

Portfolio Approach

I can’t recall working with a client on an innovation project where only one idea at a time was progressed from the available pile.  Usually there is a desire to take forward a small handful – and this would typically be our recommendation.  In practice this approach most often sees project teams assembled around two or three available ideas.  In these circumstances we suggest that the handful of ideas is based on a 2:1 spilt of “easier” vs “harder” ideas taken from as close as possible to the top of the rankings produced by the application of the two criteria described above.  This “easier” versus “harder” distinction usually carries some subtleties that are worth elaborating on.

Left to their own devices most groups will look for a “big impact/easy to do” idea. “Easy to do” can mean many things.  It might appear to be cheap to develop, require shorter development lead time, be closer to what we know, have fewer uncertainties, be closer to our comfort zone, be safer and less risky, and probably many more twists on “easy”.  The fact, however, is that “easier” can also often mean “less innovative”.  This, of course, is not an infallible rule – some genuine innovations can be very easy to do.  It’s just that this doesn’t happen often in our experience.  “Hard to do” usually suggests that we currently don’t know how to do this, or that we don’t currently have the capabilities, or that we can see many big uncertainties on the road to implementation.

Another “truth” is that “harder to do” for you is probably also harder to do for your competitors.  So, if the idea relates to new products and services, getting started on developing new ideas that your competitors wouldn’t consider can be a source of genuine competitive advantage.  I can still hear the words of the CEO of a very successful former client – “…let’s do things the competition would be scared to do!”  These things are rarely found in the “easy” pile.

The upshot then is that we would suggest that you are looking to take forward a mix of ideas – most (especially in the early days of building confidence in your innovation capabilities) will be “easy to do” but we’d also like to see at least one idea that seems a bit more of a stretch.

Resistance to Change and Overcoming Inertia

It is worth remembering that introducing any new idea represents a change for someone, somewhere.  Successful ideas are those that can overcome resistance to change and the inertia of doing things as they’ve always been done.  To do this, ideas must be capable of generating excitement and energy.  The ideas you select must have the ability to energise key stakeholders just from the written description.  Such an idea will make it clear why people should be excited about it – how much better the world will be when the idea is implemented, how much benefit will be delivered, and how new and different this is compared to what we do now.

This is every bit as true – maybe even more so – for internally-focused ideas.  You need to get your colleagues and other departments on-side to support the idea.  They will only do this if there is a clear and credible message of hope and a better future contained in the idea’s description.

If your selected idea doesn’t get people to take notice from the outset, then it runs a real risk of going nowhere fast.

Final Thoughts

In very broad terms we probably think that groups usually get too tied up in unwarranted analysis and faux-precise scoring at the sorting and selection stage of an innovation project.  We recommend keeping it simple, using fewer criteria and trusting in the exploration phase that follows to quickly and cheaply identify ideas that won’t work in practice, leaving those that will work to be accelerated on to full implementation.  Clarity of communication is everything, especially in our post-Covid remote world.  Learning to become better at describing ideas will be a real skill for those who want to make a significant innovation contribution to their organisation.