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From ideation to innovation: How to turn Michael Schrage's advice into action

Last week we posted our interview with Michael Schrage, research fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business. I want to thank Michael for spending time with us and giving us insight into how he's seeing innovation in the enterprise evolving.

Michael sheds lights on some important trends and observations in innovation and ideation. And while I share most of his viewpoints, there are some things I see a little differently. So here's my take on what Michael said. Feel free to voice your thoughts, too, in the comments.

First off, Michael talked about banning ideas from conversations about innovation. I wouldn't take this stance per se, but I think Michael makes an important point.

I agree that ideas come in all shapes and sizes -- good, bad, and ugly. And in the absence of experiments and testing of ideas, politics can often win the day and ideas just end up as "product manager tricks."

How many times have we heard, "Oh, the product manager thought it was a really good idea. So we spent six months developing it, and when we shipped the product, we found out no one wanted it." So Michael is right. Just capturing or coming up with ideas is completely insufficient for successful innovation.

So how do innovative organizations achieve Michael's key objective of deriving value from use? I believe that you need to first listen to your customers and understand what they think is valuable.

This is what an ideation system can give you, as it captures requests directly from customers and lets other customers support these requests. In other words, ideas can provide direction and insight into what is of value.

The question then is, what do I do with this input? If the answer is take it verbatim and build it, you are doomed. However, if you take Michael's advice and test several ways to deliver the value that the customer seeks, then we are golden.

This is the process that a large software company that we are working with has taken. Step one is to gather ideas from the customer base and let the customers rank these ideas. This helps eliminate the politics from the ideation process.

We go from having good, bad, and ugly ideas, which then go through a political process to rank the development priorities, to a process where we have ideas in a priority order as they are understood by your customers. This means the development team has much more confidence that customers really want this stuff.

The next part is crucial. How do we turn these ideas into products and features? I completely agree with Michael on this aspect. If we let politics or ignorance drive the product development process, we are still doomed. What is necessary is any or all of the following four steps:

1. Create focus groups with your key customers to understand in a much more rigorous way what they really meant and how they would like to see the idea actualized in your product.

2. Use surveys to probe the in-depth reasons behind the request so that you understand in much more detail how the idea is to be used and why it is of value.

3. Use agile/Scrum techniques (which is especially easy if you are building software) to actually demonstrate the new features to your customers as you are building them, not when you're done and shipping the product. Get customers intimately involved in your development process. This is a core Scrum principal and should be done at the end of every sprint.

4. Build testable versions of you new features and products, and test them. If your product is available as a website (like Amazon) you can test several versions of the idea/feature and see how your customers react. Which version of the idea did they use the most? Which one increased revenue? Which one extended their stay on the site? In a Web-based environment, you have no excuse for not testing ideas before you make them into products.

So, I agree in principle with Michael. Ideas are not nearly enough, and without testing, ideas can lead you astray. However, a good ideation system is a crucial part to ensuring you are innovating in directions that are important to your customers and eliminating much of the politics surrounding the productization of bad ideas.

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