Entrepreneur

How the idea of ideas is killing innovation

(Editor’s note: Riley Gibson is co-founder and CEO of Napkin Labs. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)

Some of the worst product flops in history started as big ideas.

Crystal Pepsi was billed as the here and now of colas, offering a caffeine free alternative with the grandeur of health and clarity. Nokia’s NGage phones were an attempt to lure gamers from their portable gaming systems and give them that platform on their cell phones. The fatal flaw of these products was a fixation on an idea that just didn’t work for mass-market consumption.

Crystal Pepsi didn’t taste so clear, and the NGage phone looked like a taco, and didn’t work well as a phone. Both were great ideas, in theory – but a focus on the ideas themselves ultimately led to their demise. In so many ways the idea of ideas is ruining the innovation process. Here’s why:

Outdated assumptions rule the day – Many companies and brands build on outdated customer insights, which is like building on a crumbled foundation. Even though your brand may have just spent tens of thousands of dollars on a successful focus group, how long will it be until you can bring those insights to market? Will it be a 12 to 18 months later? Will these insights still apply in that time frame? The process for cultivating customer insights needs to be able to escalate quickly. Conversely, customers need the ability to give real-time reactions back to companies.

Ideas make people think small – One of the most damaging aspects about fixating on ideas is that when we are asked to generate ideas, we all try to think of something totally new. We also tend to create ideas within the frameworks and business models we are used to. Most of the time, really amazing innovations come from the reorganization or unique combination of existing concepts to create something new.

Take the iPod. Apple was not the first company to think of an MP3 player, but the iPod is not an MP3 player. Apple, instead of focusing on the idea of MP3 players, looked at the entire music ecosystem and created an offering that re-envisioned the device, how it connected to the computer, and how you bought and stored music on your computer. Ideas tend to make people think small, whereas empathizing with customers lets you identify needs that new products and services can be designed around.

A culture of ideas distracts from execution – Ideas are easy and fun, so we tend to fixate on them. Sometimes, we obsess over how bright an idea may seem. Far too often we forget to obsess equally over the execution.

Working an idea from a concept into a prototype and eventually a complete product in a consumer market is where the hard work and innovation really are. In a 2007 Fast Company article David Novak, the man behind Crystal Pepsi, admitted, “People were saying we should stop and address some issues along the way, and they were right. It would have been nice if I’d made sure the product tasted good. Once you have a great idea and you blow it, you don’t get a chance to resurrect it.”

One bright idea can easily flash into an irrelevant surge if not nurtured through execution.

Brand experience often plays second fiddle – Even the most innovative products in existence that ignore the consumer’s experience are doomed to be irrelevant. Ideas are ultimately great research tools. All ideas must cater to the customer’s experience – first and foremost.

The result of an idea can grow to be the most provocative and innovative product ever, but if the service or customer touch-points surrounding that product are flawed, then the product runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.

The best way to avoid these growing pains is to invite your customers to be involved before that big idea even crosses your mind. Find out what their true experience is with your product or brand and realize that these conversations can lead to real innovation breakthroughs that were otherwise concealed, hidden or out of sight.

Before you act on developing a clear cola, mine your customers for insights and discover what their actual needs are. Wouldn’t it be nice to realize that before you reach full-scale production that everyone thinks your phone looks like a taco and doesn’t truly solve any issues they struggle with?

Find out these pain points early. These are the insights that are the most valuable to your company.


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