Ten Ways to Grow an Idea Garden

By Christopher Miller, Ph.D. and Gary Graziano, AIA

It takes about 6.7 years, on average, for a good idea to get to market and achieve profitability, which means that many ideas take even longer to get there and most ideas take much longer before they evolve into successful, money-making products or services. Even very aggressive firms that have sophisticated new product development (NPD) processes rarely cut this time by more than 45%. In fact, a substantial amount has been written about being too fast in getting an idea to market. It appears that as companies pick up speed, they sacrifice their higher impact, game-changing ideas on the altar of capitalism in exchange for incremental products that they can launch this quarter — or next — to keep the stock price up and the analysts at bay.

And now, your dilemma: you have a really great idea and the responsibility to nurture and build it into a reality. But you also want to grow your firm swiftly or move your way up the career ladder before the rungs snap from those seven years of wear and tear — or before you start scratching at the “seven year itch.” But even if developing your idea takes just seven years, that’s two years longer than most start-ups last, and two years longer than the average managerial tenure. It’s also 20% of a career; a lot longer than most people, organizations, or investors can — or can afford to — focus on any one thing.

Executives all over the country have tested their own development processes to see whether their companies, too, are mired in such lengthy design phases. Burt Kehoe, Vice President of Innovation at Hunt Manufacturing in Philadelphia, took the time to audit his entire product development process. He counted 450 individual steps to get a newly designed X-acto™ knife blade to market. Kathy Rhyne, an NPD director at Hershey Foods Corporation, says that there were over 300 people critical to the launch of the chocolate Kiss with Almond — and any one of them could have given the Kiss with Almond the kiss of death by stopping the process with a concern about quality or cost.

This is why we call innovation the “organizational bumblebee;” it doesn’t appear to be capable of flight — yet somehow it does fly once the innovation buzz begins to build within an organization.

In a really hot business climate, everyone is far too busy doing the unquestionably successful old stuff that pays the bills and creates paid vacations to pay attention to questionable new stuff that creates bills and unpaid overtime. In short, they’re more than willing to let the urgent business of providing for today overtake the important business of preparing for tomorrow. This is why hot business climates are the equivalent of long, cold winters for our innovation bumblebee.

In the 80’s, a large defense contractor in the greater Baltimore area knew that strategically they no longer needed their world-class team of thousands of engineers and technical support people, because their core business would soon be facing an eternal winter with an empty cellar. The Department of Defense (DOD) had even encouraged them to broaden their market, indicating that defense work would be insufficient in the future to maintain this huge technical resource. Yet the DOD also intimated that the resource was valuable to the future of the DOD because together they had developed such cold war miracles as the Airborne Warning and Control System under the guidance of amazing men like John Staehlin. And, the DOD knew that they could be counted on to develop the next new thing when the next big problem worth solving arose.

In an effort to do the right thing for its employees, the DOD and the country, the company began looking at technologies that could be moved from the defense industry into the fertile fields of general commerce. They asked, “what if the satellite based system designed for the deployment of tanks could also be used to move buses more effectively around Baltimore or any other city?” And, “what if the sensor systems designed to feed concurrent intelligence into a fighter aircraft could be used by a state trooper to get information on someone they just pulled over on a dark and deserted highway?” Or, “what if the ability to measure small differences in temperature below ground from a height of 60,000 feet was useful in measuring patient temperatures in a hospital without waking them up?”

What If?

The answers to each of these “what if” questions were undeniably positive. In theory, defense technology could be redeployed to resolve problems that both the company and its prospective customers agreed were worth solving. And then, just as the innovation bumblebee was about to take flight, along came another flyer, a helicopter contract from the DOD. And in less time than it takes a bee to sting, the garden of human and financial resources that provides the sweet nectar of innovation was harvested for a feast.

At this defense contractor, the process of natural selection in which mature ideas prevail over new ideas played itself out just as it does every day at corporations all over the world. Yet even this bare, untended garden eventually bore fruit. John Staehlin stored the seed of the idea of moving defense technology to other uses, keeping it safe and dry until the conditions were right for planting in new soil. He then founded Volunteers for Medical Engineering (VME), which was soon named one of George Bush, Sr.’s 1000 Points of Light. Today, VME uses hundreds of primarily retired, volunteer “rocket scientists” to solve specialty medical problems that do not currently appear commercially viable.

So, if innovation takes so long, what innovation focuses can you use to get the buzz going about problems worth solving?

First, you have to move fast to gain and share knowledge — because knowledge drives the entire process — even though the process may go slow. Using what you already know or can find out quickly, prove the financial feasibility and as much of the technical and marketing feasibility of the idea as you can — so that you know if the idea makes sense for your company and your prospective customers. In this study, be sure to examine options such as, “what if you were able to outsource the design rather than design it yourself?” and, “what if you were to buy it rather than build it?” Or, “what else can we do to turn the idea around — or turn it upside down until money falls out?” and “what will competitors do?”

To facilitate your technical and market research, rapid prototyping and message testing are extremely useful tools. Rapid prototyping quickly reduces an idea to practice and provides both the innovation team and customers something they can see, touch, feel and react to in ways that are more powerful and effective than the reactions you’d get if you only share a written description or picture. And while rapid prototyping is a great learning experience, message testing is equally, if not more, important. This is because, if you can’t state your value proposition in a simple way that is compelling for prospects, they’ll never become customers, and your idea — no matter how technologically miraculous — will never get off the ground.

These “early day” studies are important due diligence steps. Alternatively, if you find out that your first idea isn’t likely to grow, you can confidently decide to replant and get going on another idea so that you don’t waste seven valuable years of your career and the company’s scarce resources tilling soil that will never bear fruit.

There are many ways, some conventional and expensive, and others not, to do the financial, technical and marketing due diligence that you need to do. New Pig, a small company from Tipton, PA, competes effectively with the likes of 3M. They do it with a repeatable process that relies more on knowledge and market understanding than time and money. And they do it without skipping key steps. As the New Pig example illustrates, the important thing is not how much time or money you spend, but that you do the research objectively and pay careful attention to the findings.

Huge companies — and the people in them — can behave like small companies and entrepreneurs, too. To determine technical feasibility, Nate Wyeth, the developer of the ubiquitous DuPont polymer that is now in every soda bottle and the scientific arm of the famous Delaware Wyeth family of artists, said that he took over the family refrigerator with every kind of plastic bottle imaginable. He figured if he could find one that would work even a little, he’d know whether, or where, to start developing the real thing. What Nate learned from his home science project is that most bottles turned into basketballs filled with flat soda — except for the one that got him started on the path to success.

For initial marketing research, as the idea is forming, talk to your salespeople and suppliers or distributors who are typically elsewhere on the innovation “food chain” because your idea might change how their work is done just as their ideas might change how your work is done. Also, look to have informal developmental conversations with legal, regulatory and financial specialists. And, along the way, interview at least 30 prospective customers, most of whom you don’t know, to find out if they have the problem you are trying to solve, if they would be interested enough in the solution you propose to pay for it and, if so, how long do they think it would take them before they decide to try it?

Customer interviews can be conducted in person, over the phone, via the web or in all three media. When seeking customer input, avoid interviewing friends as they are likely to be polite, and may not provide the objective criticism you need to map out the best flight path for your innovation. Also, it is generally a good idea not to rely on salespeople to interview or speak for customers. This is because customers are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves and salespeople, however well meaning, almost always inject some measure of personal bias.

Whenever interviewing prospects, be sure to ask each one the same set of questions so that you get a statistically significant number of responses (i.e. at least 30) to help you feel good about the decisions you will have to make. And, whether interviewing salespeople, suppliers, specialists or prospects, always take copious, unfiltered notes during or after every conversation so that you can remember and analyze what was said to develop an objective view of how your idea will be received internally and externally.

The point is to quickly test your idea while it is still in the early formative stage. Test it against your market and against your strategy. Prove that you can do it. Prove feasibility. Don’t forget that your idea is going to have an impact on many parts of your company and the suppliers and distributors who support you. And most importantly, spend time with key players in the core of your company, getting their advice on how the idea can play out. Tom Fehsenfeld, of Crystal Flash Energy in Michigan, describes how dramatically his innovation team underestimated the impact of their ideas on critical operations like customer service and billing. These are the people who can make or break your idea. Manage them carefully and your idea will keep buzzing even in the most trying times.

Nurturing ideas into reality is a lot like planting and tending a garden. There are ten basic rules that you must abide by if you want to grow ideas that won’t wither on the vine.


Ten Essential Commandments for the Successful Idea Gardener.

Thou shalt…

I. Know thy sun, soil and plants: Make sure that ideas fit your organization — its finances, strategies and capabilities. Be sure that ideas are physically feasible.

II. Fellowship with other gardeners: Seek advice from legal and financial specialists, customer service and suppliers regularly.

III. Observe the weather faithfully: Consult with customers often by doing quick research before and after planting.

IV. Place a one-dollar plant in a five dollar hole: Allow room for growth. New ideas can consume large amounts of organizational energy.

V. Plant anew if the seed does not sprout: Do not throw good effort after bad. If a new idea does not work, look for another one that might.

VI. Water thy garden: Be sure that ideas and teams get the resources and moral support they need.

VII. Protect thy work from pestilence and blight: Provide executive cover. Avoid forsaking the important work of NPD to focus exclusively on existing business.

VIII. Cull the wilted, the withered and the weeds: There are so many good ideas that you simply cannot undertake them all. Scarce resources need to be saved for the ideas that you can tend best.

IX. Give thanks to thy family, friends and neighbors: Recognize those who help ideas succeed.

X. Harvest no plant before its time: Do not be overeager to reap the fruits of your labor. Make sure ideas are ready for market before taking them from the garden. They will be worth much more if they are mature and ripe.


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