Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What is “idea management” and how does it apply to the FFE?

In product development (or innovation more generally), you deal with lots of lists. Idea management is an early phase in product development where you generate a list of ideas for possible products you could create. There are other situations where you have to manage lists of ideas though. For instance bug fixing (and equivalent product improvement processes for non-software products) is a form of idea management. Another is feature planning where you go around asking customers what features they would like to see in the product and you generate a list of these ideas. The difference with idea management is that it occurs at the Fuzzy Front End (FFE) when you don’t even have a product and you may not even have any customers. It’s the blank white board of product development.

One of my marketing professors had a great piece of advice for idea management. He said you have to be prepared to look at a lot of ideas. I’ve found that to be good advice because at the FFE, you never have enough information to tell which are good or bad ideas. Only by pursuing an idea can you answer questions about the idea. The investigation itself takes time and resources. So it makes sense to construct a portfolio of opportunities and start by investigating them all, just a little bit. Once you’ve done an initial phase of investigation, you whittle down the list and do another pass of deeper investigation. You keep repeating this process until you just can’t kill the last remaining idea. That’s the process of idea management.

The hard part is taking the decisions to abandon ideas. If there are multiple people involved, the task can become political and that’s where leadership needs to step in to help set the ground rules. If you’re working alone at idea management, it can be difficult to get to the last step of idea management, the point where you’re left with one remaining idea. You may be an entrepreneur who faces a tough decision about running forward with this last remaining idea because you still won’t have all of the information you’d like to decide if it’s worth it or not. You may be inclined to go back to the beginning and restart your idea management process. It is hard to know the right thing to do.

Here is a list of other problems with Idea Management:

  • It is often confused with Knowledge Management, which suffers from a negative stigma.
  • Taking the initiative to formalize the process and establish “the purpose, scope, responsibility, ownership, tools and procedures for idea management”. Similarly it’s important to set “expectations of Return on Investment (ROI)”.
  • Collecting too many ideas and not to being firm enough on criteria.
  • Getting idea management started: sometimes the ideas just sit in the proverbial “suggestion box” unread for years. For one thing, you can’t proactively patent those ideas, let alone build businesses out of them. Sometimes you just lose the employees who came up with the ideas, so it’s important to harness peoples’ inclination for creativity.
  • Failing to invest in idea management sufficiently for the process to run itself.
  • Not recognizing the potential for inter-departmental idea management. What happens if department x has an idea for department y that would help the overall company function more efficiently?
  • Lack of tools and proven best practices for idea management.
  • Some companies function by giving a lot of praise to individual inventors. Without systemic changes, these inventors may be forced to “defend a pile of accolades,” keeping ideas to themselves rather than participating in the collaborative idea management process.

Outlogic Blog
Corante Ideaflow


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