When most people think of innovation and innovative companies, they mistakenly envision creative geniuses holed up in research labs pursuing that Eureka moment when they miraculously discover The Idea.
You know The Idea. The one truly transformative, groundbreaking and revolutionary business concept that will change not just a company, but an entire industry. That’s The Idea.
The problem is, The Idea really isn’t about innovation at all. In fact, ideas are actually pretty easy to come by. Spend some time at an entrepreneurs conference and you’ll hear at least a dozen ideas that you’re convinced can be the next Google, or Groupon, or whatever tomorrow’s raging hot company is.
Talk to any company that set up an idea forum for their employees to contribute to. They’ll they’ll you that they have so many great ideas that it’s damaging their capacity for innovation. With so many ideas – including those that are genuinely brilliant – to sift through, analyze, prioritize and assess, actual innovation bogs down.
Ideas are a Commodity
Ideas aren’t the problem. Execution is.
Those companies that you envision as innovation leaders aren’t brilliant because of The Idea, they’re brilliant because they had the nerve, the talent and the resilience to actually develop, refine and launch The Idea. They took The Idea from boardroom to showroom.
The Life and Death of an Idea
Several years ago, I witnessed both the inception of The Idea and its ultimate demise while running a company in the packaging industry.
As the manufacturer of label applicators (the machines that apply labels to products), I worked with companies that had special material handling issues that we were uniquely positioned to solve. While working with a major memory card manufacturer in San Diego, we were confronted with a production bottleneck that centered around label application.
The manufacturer was set up for short runs of memory cards with different memory capacities and needed to run 500 16GB cards, then run 1000 8GB cards, then run 300 32GB cards. The problem was that automatic labeling systems took over 20 minutes to changeover from one roll of labels to the next and was killing their productivity, forcing them to resort to hand applying labels to each tiny card.
Ask Why Not?
While brainstorming with my engineers, we asked a question that had never been asked before: what if we changed out the entire labeling head instead of the roll of labels? What if the labeling head itself were made as an interchangeable component instead of a fixed component?
This was The Idea. There was nothing like it in the industry and we had the engineering ability to rapidly prototype, gain proof of concept and ultimately execute The Idea.
And it worked. Product changeover time was reduced from 20 minutes to as little as 40 seconds. The client was so eager to get several machines that they paid the initial development costs in exchange for exclusive rights to the system for one year.
Death Was Swift
Then I sold the company and witnessed how The Idea can meet a swift and brutal demise, despite its promise and potential.
As novel as The Idea was, its brilliance would lay in its execution. The interchangeable labeling heads weren’t enough to guarantee success. The Idea’s success lay in its ability to handle and present the memory cards to the labeling head, to apply the labels with 1/32″ precision and to collect the labeled cards at the end of the process. Nothing that devoted engineers couldn’t resolve.
However, as most companies find out, conceiving The Idea is the sexy, fun and exciting part, but execution determines The Idea’s ultimate success and requires months of boring and tedious work to perfect in the real world. Ultimately, The Idea died when the new business owners declared that they were in the production business, not the innovation business and abandoned The Idea’s refinement process.
And now The Idea awaits another company to discover its potential and put it into production. Or maybe we weren’t as innovative as we thought, and we were just creative thinkers with an idea, not The Idea.