Ideation vs. Prioritization

The LAB: Task Unification on a Guitar (July 2008)
July 26, 2008
Innovation Allocation
August 19, 2008

Ideation vs. Prioritization

Ideation or prioritization? Imagine you had a choice of being really good at one, but not the other. You could be a master at creating ideas, or you could excel at selecting winning ideas, but not both. Which would you choose? Two things intrigue me about this trade-off. First, companies spend too much time and energy prioritizing ideas and not enough on creating ideas. Second, the innovation space seems to demand a completely different set of tools and techniques for selecting ideas than the tools and techniques used for making other business decisions. In reality, there is no difference. The tools used to make everyday business decisions should be the same ones used to prioritize ideas.

Ideation or prioritization?  Imagine you had a choice of being really good at one, but not the other.  You could be a master at creating ideas, or you could excel at selecting winning ideas, but not both.  Which would you choose? 

Two things intrigue me about this trade-off.  First, companies spend too much time and energy prioritizing ideas and not enough on creating ideas.  Second, the innovation space seems to demand a completely different set of tools and techniques for selecting ideas than the tools and techniques used for making other business decisions.  In reality, there is no difference.  The tools used to make everyday business decisions should be the same ones used to prioritize ideas. 

I face this issue a lot when speaking about innovation.  “How do you select the best idea to pursue?  How do you know which idea is going to be the next blockbuster?  What is the secret to spotting great ideas?”   I just spoke to an outstanding group of MBA candidates at the Columbia Business School.   One of the students wanted to know my views on this.  It is as though I have a special eye or an innovation Magic Eightball for picking winners.  If you can unlock my formula, you will find the path to riches.  Not even close.

 

In my view, prioritization of ideas is not an innovation issue, and it does not belong in the discussion at all.  The problem of which idea to pursue from among a list of choices is a subject well covered by the behavioral decision sciences.  An amazing body of research exists in this field.  Researchers have described highly effective methods of choice that circumvent the inherent weaknesses of humans in making decisions.  The choices we make in the innovation space are no different.  The choice of which innovation to pursue should be approached the same way one decides on what clothes to wear or what person to marry:  1. consider the criteria that are important, 2. weight those criteria, 3. score each candidate on those criteria, 4. add up the results, and 5. let the chips fall where they are. The highest rated idea is the one you should pursue.  It’s that simple.

 

But innovation choices get special privileges over other choices.  We seem to require methods of choice that deserve royal treatment over other methods of choice.  A cottage industry within a cottage  industry has evolved to create a sense of uniqueness when in fact no uniqueness exists.  A wide variety of special tools have emerged to select and manage ideas.  The good news about many of these tools is that they have the right science built into them.  Here is a sample (from Innovation Tools – thanks, Chuck!)


Accolade Idea Management

Ameli

BrainBank

BrightIdea.com

Cognistreamer Innovation Manager

EGIP Idea-Modul

Engage ThoughtWare

Idea Management System

Idea Reservoir

IdeaBox

IdeaCenter (Akiva)

IdeasTracker

IdeaValue

Imaginatik

Ingenuity Bank

Insight Results

Jenni Enterprise Idea Management

OVO Innovation

Prism Idea Management

Target Idea Management for mySAP

Executives obsess over  finding the right method to select ideas when they should be more focused on how to generate ideas.  The zeal over prioritization puts a drag on the core issues surrounding innovation such as how to innovate and how to make it routine and part of the culture.   Why do executives sweat more over selecting ideas than generating?  My sense is they feel more accountable when choosing an idea than when generating the idea.  Generating an idea doesn’t carry with it any risk or obligation to spend.  Choosing an idea does both.  If companies want executives to put more priority on generating ideas, they will need to change this.

It is time to strip out this issue entirely from the innovation discussion.  Don’t mix the two.  Put the emphasis on a method to generate many great ideas and not on the method to choose the right one. For that, use the well-established science.  Just as Fortune 100 companies use the well established methods to innovate, we should use well established methods to prioritize innovations.