The Five Stages of Successful Innovation

Defining an innovation process increases companies’ future value.

Serendipity is not a strategy, yet that’s the extent of most companies’ innovation planning. The importance of innovation to a company’s future is unquestionable. Then why do so few companies have a process for it? The authors of a September 2006 working paper, Crafting Organizational Innovation Processes, address that question. Their underlying research comprised semi-structured interviews conducted with senior research and development, marketing and product management executives from more than 30 U.S. and European companies in several distinct industries, supplemented with data from annual reports.

The paper identifies five discrete and essential stages of successful innovation.

Stage 1: Idea Generation and Mobilization

The generation stage is the starting line for new ideas. Successful idea generation should be fueled both by the pressure to compete and by the freedom to explore. IDEO, the product development and branding company based in Palo Alto, California, is a good example of an organization that encourages successful idea generation by finding a balance between playfulness and need.

Once a new idea is generated, it passes on to the mobilization stage, wherein the idea travels to a different physical or logical location. Since most inventors aren’t also marketers, a new idea often needs someone other than its originator to move it along. This stage is vitally important to the progression of a new idea, and skipping it can delay or even sabotage the innovation process.

Stage 2: Advocacy and Screening

This stage is the time for weighing an idea’s pros and cons. Advocacy and screening have to take place at the same time to weed out ideas that lack potential without allowing stakeholders to reject ideas impulsively solely on the basis of their novelty. The authors found that companies had more success when the evaluation process was transparent and standardized, because employees felt more comfortable contributing when they could anticipate how their ideas would be judged. For example, one software engineer from an information technology organization said, “One of the things I have struggled with is evaluations of my ideas. Some of my ideas light up fires around here, while others are squashed. . . . Needless to say, I grow skeptical when [the executives] ask for ideas and then do not provide feedback as to why an idea was not pursued.”

Stage 3: Experimentation

The experimentation stage tests the sustainability of ideas for a particular organization at a particular time — and in a particular environment.

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