Innovation plays an important role in today’s global economy. Innovation fuels the world’s economic engine, and it would be difficult to find a company — or an entire country — not practicing innovation today. However, innovation is a process, and many companies — and countries — are ill-prepared to take the required steps for transforming problem-solving ideas into successful innovations. Here is a 10-step program for transforming your ideas into successful innovations.
1. Choose a problem-solving idea that reflects your strengths. The problem-solving idea should mirror your personal passions and align with your professional strengths. Be honest: Does the solution leverage your area of professional competence or personal passion? Does it take into account how you operate best? Don’t fool yourself and waste time — a precious commodity that can’t be recouped — by pursuing problem-solving ideas that you are not passionate about or that fail to capitalize on your strengths.
2. Use a 360˚ view. Evaluate your problem-solving idea from every conceivable angle. Be honest: Who are the customers, and why would they pay for your product or service? Is the market big enough to justify your time commitment, the opportunity cost involved and the investment capital needed to satisfy customer needs? Is the expected return on investment large enough to warrant the effort and sacrifice required to see the idea through to fruition?
3. Seek honest feedback. Find people who tell the truth, and request that they give you honest, constructive feedback. Seek those truth-tellers who have intimate market knowledge, understand what financial and business models work most effectively, recognize the competitions’ advantages over you and have “been there, done that” credibility. Also, talk to lots of prospective customers to find out what they think of your problem-solving ideas; listen carefully to what they tell you.
4. Take action. After receiving honest and constructive feedback from credible truth-tellers, take action. Write up a detailed action plan that starts with baby steps and advances to larger, more ambitious leaps. Next, identify the most important goal needed to be achieved in the first six months; then, list the next set of mission-critical goals that need to be achieved over the next 12 months…18 months…24 months. Follow the plan with extreme disciplined focus!
5. Build an ugly prototype. Conceive a bare-bones prototype of your idea, and then build it as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. Go ugly, early. So what if you are embarrassed by how the prototype looks — ship it! Then, seek out user feedback and waste no time incorporating the most constructive feedback into the next version of your “baby.” Repeat the process until the customer — not you — is satisfied with your problem-solving solution.
6. Perfection is taboo. When starting out, your focus should be on building, releasing and shipping products or services that are “good enough” — unless you build bridges, manufacture heart stents, etc. Most products and services do not require perfection, so don’t strive for it. Microsoft became a multi-billion dollar leader in a multi-trillion dollar industry by being “good enough.” Why can’t your company?
7. Test. Determine if your product or service satisfies your customers’ needs. Test how well it performs, test if it is priced correctly, test how customers use it, and test if your marketing message is succeeding at recording revenues, generating sales leads, and filling sales and distribution channels. Measure results, make improvements and test some more. Never. Stop. Testing.
8. Adjust. Testing generates lots of data. Evaluate this data, and look for patterns, trends and commonalities to make impactful adjustments. Adjust only what needs improvement — keeping in place what’s good enough. Remember: Good enough becomes better in the next iteration.
9. Past forward. You read that right: Past forward. Look back at the steps taken; you’ll find that you are your most ardent critic, yet hopefully you see incremental progress being made. Build on this progress by applying lessons learned in taking the next set of incremental steps forward during the next round of improvements. The goal is slow and steady, so there’s no need to leap forward. Run this long distance race at a marathoner’s pace — not a sprinter’s.
10. Make it happen. Play to win. Fail fast. Fail cheap (especially if other people’s money is involved). Sell your product or service, and sell it again…and again. Improve on the product or service, and sell that. Then, sell more and more of it. Eventually, cash in. Go on vacation. Get bored. Start the journey again at No. 1, and admit to yourself what you’ve long suspected: You’re addicted to innovation.
Time will tell if your company — or country — succeeds at producing successful innovation by following these ten steps. From my experience, innovation success can be traced to market timing, competitors’ missteps, luck and, as I swear happened once, divine intervention. Whatever the reasons, transforming ideas into successful innovation requires disciplined, focused execution. This is why I encourage you to commit to these steps, and take the words of Steve Jobs, which I’ve paraphrased, to inspire you: “The best way to predict your innovation success is to create it.”
David Whitney serves as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering. Whitney teaches a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students at UF. In addition, Whitney is the founding Managing Director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.