If you want to bring more innovation to your organization you are a good person. You are doing the right thing. Do not give up. Do not be dissuaded. I often meet representatives from a company or lab that seem genuinely interested in innovation, but they discourage themselves. They tell stories of ideas that failed or things they wanted to do that never got tried. They forgot the first rule of innovation, and that is to persevere.
This is a huge topic so in this post I am only going to address one potential structure of the innovation process. This is delicate since bureaucracy is the enemy of innovation. The goal is structure without bureaucracy, and if successful you will gain efficiency without squelching creativity.
When I encounter a company, lab, or inventor, I like to ask about projects. How many projects are going on right now? Usually people's eyes bulge at the very notion of counting the many, many "things" that are happening. Often they have complex project management software in which managing the management system has become its own project. But everybody has a long list of projects. It usually takes a while for them to even think of them all. And there are always a few that they forgot about but just remembered and are in fact very important things. If I were to ask the leader and the employees what the company was focused on I would typically get many different answers.
Let me be clear. The purpose of an organization, unlike a family or community, is not to exist, is not to enact social change broadly, it is to accomplish a very specific, very focused initiative. Many companies, most I would argue, are not focused, are not organized. Do not let this happen to you. If you have a company, or are thinking of starting one, I recommend you focus it on innovation.
Some of the more organized groups have implemented a "stage / gate" system for managing projects. But they are always mind-bogglingly complex. The number of steps and approvals and deliverables is soul-crushing. And the things that do make it through are usually a jumbled mess of half-baked ideas and influences, even if the original idea was good.
You may be frustrated, or you may be relieved, to know that innovation is not a clean, tidy, organized process. It should not be tracked with software. It should not be divided in to channels. It should be a little messy. The key is to contain the mess, and to have a process for organizing it when you do have something that starts to work. And there should be a process, but it should be very, very simple.
I propose a 3 step process for innovation. This can all easily fit on a whiteboard or in a notebook.
Ideas are beautiful, every one. You can never have too many ideas. There are no bad ideas. Everybody has ideas. What you need here is a culture of encouragement and acceptance and creativity and subtle ways to get people to feel safe enough to share their ideas. Ideas grow naturally, like wildflowers. You do not have to go out of your way to generate ideas. Humans, especially smart creative ones, are coming up with ideas all the time! Some people have much, much better ideas than others. These people may not be the best at executing on the ideas. That's ok! Encourage them to keep coming up with ideas.
Idea universe is a playground. It is a beautiful, fun, safe space where everybody is friendly and happy and nothing ever goes wrong. But we also don't spend a lot of money or time on ideas. We do not argue over who owns ideas. Nobody owns ideas. If you want to go home and think about an idea or talk about an idea over lunch or work on an idea on your own time that's perfectly fine. Ideas and writing go together like bread and butter. Writing doesn't cost anything. And it's a great way to explore ideas! But we need to save our finite resources like money and technician time for the next stage.
There is no limit on the number of ideas an organization can have, though it may help to rank them.
Have a leader of innovation. This person is not a boss. They are a designated helpful associate of the innovators. And they are an innovator themself. I will write more on archetypes of innovators later. For now, this person simply decides when an idea is ready to become an Experiment. An experiment costs money. An experiment takes time. An experiment may not work the first time, or it may generate more questions than answers. That is ok! That is the nature of the experiment.
It may be difficult to turn an idea in to an experiment. Do not choose ideas that are impossible to experiment on. Experiments should be closed-ended. They have a beginning and an end. They have a question and an answer. One idea may lead to many Experiments. One Experiment may address multiple ideas. It is a many to many relationship. Before starting an experiment, it should be clear how much time and money and other resources it should take. And the people that run it should be held accountable to this budget. When the experiment is finished, the leader should decide if more experiments are necessary, if the idea should go back to idea world, or if it is ready for the next stage.
There should be a limit to the number of experiments being run, and they should be kept as simple as possible. A small business or business unit of a large company may have 10-12 experiments running.
This land tends to be less fun than the other two, but it is in many ways the most important. Without the actual Initiatives, without shipping, without focus, the organization will eventually die, which would mean an end to Idea universe and Experiment world. So don't complain about the Initiatives.
An initiative starts with the results of one of more experiments, and ends with a finished product that has been delivered to customers. An initiative is a closed process that starts with the results of one or more experiments. It takes these results, and synthesizes them in to something more robust, more repeatable, more scaleable, more consistent than the experiments.
Finding ways to complete the initiative may involve other ideas and experiments related to design, documentation, manufacturing, quality control, and formation of a supply chain. The people working on a initiative should be very focused on it. They want to finish it.
I think it is good to keep no more than 3 initiatives running at a time.
You made it! You're done! You succeeded. This is not part of the process of innovation. It is the conclusion. The job of the innovator is finished. Now it is time for the equally important roles of operators and marketers and logistics coordinators and accounters to manage and maintain the product. This is its own discipline which I will not delve in to that much since I want to focus on innovation. But be sure to remember that products can and should be continuously innovated upon.
How many products to manage is a strategic decision, but of course wouldn't life be beautiful if an organization only had to manage one product? And they just kept innovating on it?
Example: The Super Candle
One day, Tom Innovator gets to the lab a little frustrated from the night before. You see, he wanted to stay up late reading papers about an idea he had to learn to talk to dolphins, but the candles he was using just were not cutting it. The candles cost too much, and they did not create enough light, and they did not last long enough, and they made a mess of his table with all of their wax. Maybe there is a better way. Tom has an idea for a "super candle". What if there was a candle that did not have any of these problems?
Many of Tom's friends told him it was a bad idea. One of them even wrote a piece in the local newspaper saying so. Candles already caused enough fires! This man is crazy! We should not allow him to make the super candle. Tom listened, but he knew they were wrong. They could not see what he could see. He would simply have to show them.
Over lunch, Tom was talking to his friend Nick about his experiments on "electricity". Nick didn't really know what to do with this strange stuff running through his wires, but he did mention that when the wires were too thin, the metal would get so hot that they would glow. He kept burning himself. It was very frustrating. But it gave Tom an idea for an experiment.
Tom and Nick get together and try different types of wires to see how much light they could create on purpose. They run many experiments, but unfortunately the wire keeps melting before it gets bright enough for Tom's vision of the super candle. They sigh and the super candle goes back to idea world.
A few days later Nick is getting a beer after work with a controversial figure at the lab, Jack. Jack is running experiments on gunpowder, dreaming of one day focusing this fire enough to build a new type of propeller. Everyone thinks Jack is a little crazy, but Nick tells him about the failed wire experiment. Jack explains that he is trying to do the opposite, he is trying to get as much heat as possible for his experiment and he found that to do this he needed to get as much oxygen as possible in his devices since the oxygen feeds the fire. That gives Nick an idea for an experiment.
The trio puts a thin loop of wire in a glass chamber and then they remove all the oxygen. This time the wire glows very brightly and does not burn up! This could be huge!
Finally the three set about the laborious initiative of turning this invention in to a product. Even though the wire did not burn up right away, it only lasted a few hours. They experiment on hundreds of different materials and diameters until they find the right balance. They also have to find a production process for making many glass vacuum chambers. Fortunately they found somebody that was already working on this for a different initiative. Finally, after much trial and error they have completed the initiative and they have made and tested 1000 nearly identical functioning light bulbs, which the company sells at great profit, a portion of which they invest back in to the innovation lab.
They trusted in their intuition. They collaborated. Also note how the undesired effects of one experiment became the desired effects of another. But most importantly, they persevered.