Questions, vision, and innovation

We were struck today by two blog posts on the Harvard Business Review website. In fact they were the first and second most read posts on the site on March 2, 2010.

The first is “Having Ideas Versus Having a Vision,” in which Roberto Verganti argues that after concentrating on developing idea generation skills for the past ten years, we have a wealth of ideas and we need to develop better corporate vision to exercise editorial.

I’m certainly not questioning the essential value of ideas. They will still ignite the innovation process. Tossing around a large number of ideas will still be important, especially for incremental improvements. It is not one or the other. It is a shift in the most rare and precious asset that will drive competitive advantage: visions. It’s time for thought leaders to move beyond post-its and embrace a more advanced form of creativity. A radical form of think-action that somewhat resembles that of researchers and entrepreneurs fighting to implement their vision.

In the second article, “How to Kill Innovation: Keep Asking Questions,” Scott Anthony relates how an overabundance of analysis can hamper innovation. Innovative ideas often are at the edge of what a company is used to. To bring more certainty to the initiative, established companies ask questions that, unfortunately, stymie action.

They were important questions, and robust answers would help bring each opportunity into sharper focus. And the group’s intentions were good — figure out which opportunity was the most attractive so that the company could direct its resources appropriately.

The problem, though, is what follows “What about…” questions. The next step from almost any discussion like this one is to conduct further research. And, “What about…” questions never stop. Each answer generates questions whose answers lead to further questions. It could become infinite.

On the surface, these articles seem to be contradicting one another. Verganti says that ideas are in abundance, what we need now is some vision based on research. Anthony says that too much research will kill the new idea. We believe that design thinking has a way to incorporate both. It’s about timing.

Design thinking advocated cycles of idea generation followed by research-based editing. During the idea generation stage, questions like the ones disparaged by Anthony, are banished–for the time being. Anthony is right, those questions kill innovation. But there is an important place for editing. Here’s where we agree with some of Verganti’s points. Qualitative research can offer information on which to base a vision–at least of what type of problem the group is trying solve. This vision offers a basis on which to separate the good ideas from the bad.

Roughly outlined, the process should go something like this:

  1.  Define research objectives based on big-picture vision
  2.  Perform qualitative research
  3.  Develop a vision of what problems are to be addressed
  4.  Brainstorm (don’t judge)
  5.  Select the best ideas based on the vision and the research
  6.  Generate more than one prototype (don’t judge)
  7.  Test prototypes with representative users

Repeat steps 6 and 7, and use what you’ve learned to clarify your vision. When the prototypes are (close enough to) matching your vision and customers’ expectations, ship.

In the end, we agree with the conclusion that reached by Anthony: “The future can’t be analytically derived. Of course it’s almost always valuable to think comprehensively about a new idea. But maintain a healthy balance between analysis and action.”