Innovation Excellence: Using the Innovation Pipeline to Drive Growth & Address Failure

In business we often launch new initiatives without thinking through the “what if’s?” of the project failing.  Instead we get to the end of the road and the initiative didn’t turn out as planned.  Rather than chalking up one big failure at the end you can break the initiative up into pieces and evaluate each stage along the way.

Most business leaders have made it to the top by promoting their success stories and glossing over their failures but innovation leaders know that failure is a more likely outcome than success.  How can an organization rationalize these two radically distinct perspectives?  The innovation pipeline process is a strategic tool that allows the organization to course correct with some of the small failures and save money by avoiding some of the bigger failures.

Below is my published article from the Innovation Excellence Blog on Using the Innovation Pipeline to Drive Growth & Address Failure.

Innovation Excellence - Innovation Pipeline

For many business leaders, failure is a four-letter word. Traditional management theory has conditioned us to run our companies under the philosophy that failure isn’t an option.

Often times with failure comes punishment or even termination from the organization but as innovation leaders we know that failure is the more likely outcome. How can we rationalize these two radically distinct perspectives? Most business leaders have made it to the top by promoting their success stories and glossing over their failures despite the valuable lessons they can teach us. By using the innovation pipeline as a strategic tool to manage your innovation process, you can also address the issue of failure by highlighting the necessity of the small failures along the way.

Creating a Process that Drives Growth and Addresses Failure

Some organizations are using a variation of innovation pipeline process to manage their portfolio of innovation initiatives. Beyond driving growth the pipeline also creates an important opportunity to learn from failures. Some initiatives will advance through the process: idea to concept, concept to experiment, experiment to pilot, and pilot to scale. Other initiatives will stall out along the way. For one reason or another they will fail to overcome the evaluation criteria. In many cases this failure to move forward will not be the fault of the team leading the initiative but based on circumstances beyond their control.

For other organizations, innovation is more like throwing spaghetti at a wall: if something sticks, they move forward. In most cases these efforts are a waste of time in that the organization is too loose on their evaluation criteria because their leaders cannot stomach the high rate of failure. That’s where the innovation pipeline comes in. It builds a methodical, intelligent process around innovation, creating checks and balances to prevent misuse of time and money while promoting the opportunity to manifest new ideas and nurture them to success.

This process somewhat mimics the Silicon Valley venture capital funding model. Good ideas get seed capital, but they must demonstrate their worth to earn additional funding. Successful venture capital firms know that every startup portfolio will have only a few successes — and a lot of failures. Knowing there will be many failures along the way requires us to face the likelihood of failure and overcome our fear.

Adjusting Culture to Expect Failure

Why is there a morbid fear of failure in business? Every entrepreneur knows that success is not guaranteed. But once a business owner establishes a sustainable company, she moves into protection mode and focuses on preventing anything that may jeopardize what she’s built. As a result, risk taking becomes risk management.

We have to go back to creating a culture where risk and failure are not just tolerated, but expected. The innovation pipeline creates transparency around these tricky topics, giving executives a higher degree of control and measurement around that which they fear most.

Implementing the Innovation Pipeline

Following the methodology of the innovation pipeline helps a company embrace the possibility of failure by creating more opportunities to assess feasibility. Many ideas will be generated, but only a few will make it to the experimental stage and beyond. It’s relatively inexpensive to fail in the earlier stages of this process, but it can be damaging — in expense and reputation — to fail in the latter stages. Without a similar process, companies don’t give themselves a proven methodology to determine which ideas deserve their resources.

Here’s a general breakdown of the steps involved in an innovation pipeline:

1. Generating Ideas

The emphasis should always be on the quality of the ideas, not the quantity. Resist the urge to require ideas to meet strict parameters, like timelines or revenue generation. This stage is truly about the manifestation of innovative concepts that can propel your company forward.

2. Solidifying Concepts

Next, expand on the top ideas and generate a bit of business rigor around them. Assess the realistic properties of each idea — whether or not they match your company’s skill set — and what it would take to execute on them.

3. Running Experiments

If an idea passes the concept phase, the next step is to test the key hypothesis as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Eric Ries’ book,The Lean Startup,” provides an excellent model of this process. Remembering that innovation is a numbers game prevents wasting resources at this stage.

4. Creating a Pilot

Once the experiments pass muster, you’re ready to further refine your innovation. Determine what pieces worked, which need adjustments, and what aspects are still missing. Spend more time and money here, as this is your chance to map out a successful pilot.

5. Scaling Your Launch

What was once a seedling idea is now ready to go to market. By following the innovation pipeline structure, you’ve spent minimal time and money to design a rollout plan that stands a good chance of succeeding. You’ve already addressed many potential obstacles and considered most of the crucial angles. It’s time for the market to give you the feedback you’ve prepared for.

Think of this process like you would a diversified investment portfolio. You don’t have to throw all your proverbial eggs in a single basket. With the pipeline, you afford your company the option to consider various innovations, test the waters, and push forward with your best ideas — or not. Successful companies like 3M spend up to $4 billion annually on research and development to employ the innovation pipeline, with excellent results.

It’s integral to embrace failure as part of the process. If you have no failures to tout, you haven’t taken enough risks and will certainly experience a minimized version of success. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Forget that mantra, and your company has little chance of longevity.

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