It takes more than a good idea to be successful. You also have to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and how to handle challenges that threaten it ever seeing the light of day. Without a game plan, you’ll never get that great idea to the marketplace.
Scott Anthony refers to it as “the first mile” – that place where innovation moves from an idea on paper to the market.
It is often a treacherous first mile, full of obstacles of your own making and roadblocks thrown up by others. If you can’t make it through that first mile, says the international strategic adviser, then you may find that your great idea goes nowhere.
In a new book, appropriately called “The First Mile,” Anthony, managing partner of Innosight, provides a blueprint for how anyone can ensure that they don’t let themselves or others sabotage their innovation.
“What often happens is that people confuse a concept with a business or an idea,” he says. “They come up with something fun or interesting, but it gets screened out because it won’t drive value.”
For example, you may believe that you’ve got a really cool idea, but if it doesn’t drive a customer need consistently and reliably, then it won’t be profitable and will fail, he says.
“You have to go beyond the ‘what’ to the ‘why,’” he says. “Why should a customer or boss care? You’ve always got to understand what it is you’re selling.”
While this certainly makes sense, Anthony says it can often be difficult for the person infused with enthusiasm for an idea to see why the idea may not be just as appealing to others.
“Once we wrap our mind around our idea, then we reject what we don’t believe,” he says. “That’s why the first mile is so important. You recognize that any idea is partially right and partially wrong, and the quicker you figure out the weak points, the quicker you can fix them.”
Among his suggestions is first doing the documentation – simply writing down what you plan to do. He says that it’s often this most simple step that many innovators miss.
Once you’ve documented it, then it’s time to:
- Evaluate: This part of the process looks at the customer, the key stakeholders, the economics involved, how it will be commercialized, the team and the financing. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? He suggests one way to evaluate an idea is to role play. For example, let’s say you’ve come up with an idea for a device that will fly you to the grocery store. That means you need to play the role of the retailer who will sell it, the customer who will buy it (and the customer’s spouse) and even the gas station that will be filling the device with fuel to fly. It can also be helpful to role play your boss’s part – how will he or she react to your idea? “As any boss will do, the first questions are going to be what this thing would cost and what will the competition do?” Anthony says.
- Test, learn and adjust. “A lot of people just want to launch their product by showing off a picture,” Anthony says. “Or, they give it lip service and they aren’t really trying to learn.” If you aren’t willing to approach this phase “like a scientist” you could be in for defeat down the road because you haven’t fine-tuned your idea or discovered flaws, he says.
“You have to be really dispassionate about your idea and open your mind because 99% of innovation is adjusting,” he says.
If you do encounter failure, it can seem devastating when you’re so in love with your own idea. But Anthony says that’s when you have to try and step back and think about what happened. Was it a bad day to present it to the boss? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the idea?
“Sometimes it’s a matter of you just didn’t frame it in the right way,” he says.
Here are some common ways that Anthony says you can go off track with your innovation and how to correct the problems:
- Making a wrong turn. This is when you believe there’s an attractive market, but there isn’t. Think about why someone hasn’t done this already or are there really enough people who care about this problem to spend money or time to tackle it?
- Running out of fuel. In the planning stage you don’t create a big enough budget or allot enough time, giving yourself a chance to only correct your course one time – not the three or four times that is often needed. If this happens, think about whether your budget aligns with other similar projects. What will be Plan C and Plan D when Plan B doesn’t pan out?
- Picking the wrong driver. You’ll run into problems if you don’t have a business leader who has empathy for the target market or has no relevant experience. Would someone else on the team be better?
- Spinning out. This happens when you prematurely scale a business that doesn’t have deep traction with customers, or hasn’t become a viable business model. You will need to consider things such as how frequently the customers are referring the business to others and how you’re going to create economic value.
Finally, Anthony urges that while innovating isn’t an easy task and “can be humbling,” it can be better managed and the chances of success improved with some planning and guidance.