Case Study: How to Identify and Prioritize High Potential Ideas

The Challenge

Recognizing the importance of engaging middle managers in decisions around where to invest in innovation, this organization’s Innovation Practice Manager needed a way to equip middle managers to make these decisions. His objective was to engage seventy middle managers in a planning session at a one-day offsite. However,  he had only half a day in the off-site to make it happen.

His challenge was how to get managers to identify good ideas when they had no idea protocol;  managers were known to kill off promising ideas when they had no sight line to funding to make them happen.

Our client needed managers to decide on advancing a pool of five or six high-potential ideas, the feasibility of which could be explored by innovation challenge teams in a special organizational initiative and as a means to informing longer-term new product development strategies. He was on the nut to find game-changing products that would appeal to a global aerospace clientele.

Our Solution

It’s difficult to identify and prioritize good ideas when you have no protocol for generating ideas. At this organization, brainstorming ideas involved getting a bunch of people in a room and asking them for ideas. Once offered, ideas were immediately evaluated as good or bad against unknown criteria or shot down because the most vocal or senior person “didn’t like the ideas.”

As we explored a solution, another challenge became apparent.  While we could teach the managers how to identify and prioritize ideas, we could not be present when they set about applying what they learned to our client’s challenge. Our client worked in a high-security environment where outsiders such as us could not be party to the content of their work.

With the client, we decided we would create a short and pragmatic training that provided managers immediately applicable and repeatable protocols and tools that could be used in this and future efforts., To fast track the application process for this event, we would provide step-by-step instructions integrating what we taught so the managers could work in small teams and hit the ground running to generate new product ideas and come to the necessary decisions within 90 minutes of learning how to identify and prioritize ideas.

It was clear: to solve the challenge of how to engage middle managers in identifying and prioritizing good ideas, we were going to have to first educate these managers on the guidelines for creative thinking and protocols for running brainstorming sessions. Additionally, they needed to know how to using brainstorming tools. This would give managers the ability to run brainstorming sessions with their teams, where the process of generating and evaluating ideas were separated and would result in getting a greater quantity of novel ideas. In using this approach we showed the managers how to create the psychological safety that allows people to contribute ideas. We showed them how to push thinking to find novelty in ideas rather than settling for obvious, “same old, same old” ideas that don’t drive innovation. We also needed to teach the managers how to evaluate ideas using a tool called “praise first.” This would give managers a protocol that asked them to affirmatively evaluate ideas that met the necessary decision-making criteria by taking the time to articulate what’s good in them and considering how to improve them before deciding whether to advance the idea as a priority. This practice would ensure that weaker ideas with potential had a chance to be built upon and advanced before decisions were made to use them or kill them.

Teaching the tools was the easy part. Putting the use of these tools into our client’s work context was a more important contributor to success in this engagement. To do this, we had to do two things. First, we worked with the Innovation Practice Manager and his team to establish a common set of criteria against which managers could evaluate and eventually prioritize ideas. Clarity on criteria for decision-making on which ideas to select, develop and advance is critical; it ensures alignment to corporate strategies and innovation objectives and makes it easier for managers to confidently contribute their thinking to advancing innovation. Secondly, we developed a step-by-step process using the tools they had learned so  the managers could immediately in small teams produce the required outcome: build a pool of 5 or 6 priority ideas, the feasibility of which could later be more fully explored.

The Results

At the beginning of the training the middle managers were skeptical.  They were well-seasoned professionals with various engineering backgrounds and many thought it unlikely we could teach them anything they didn’t already know. We asked them to suspend judgment, play along, and let us know what they thought at the end.

As soon as we taught them how to separate the process of generating and evaluating ideas, we had them: this was new to them and it provided a significant upgrade to their previous practices for brainstorming ideas. They immediately saw the value this would bring to their efforts of engaging their teams in brainstorming. They found the tools we taught them easy to use and helpful.

So how many ideas did these seventy managers generate, evaluate and advance as priorities worth further exploration. Each team of seven or eight managers was challenged to generate between thirty and fifty ideas; across ten teams, that amounted to somewhere between 300 and 500 ideas. But the greater result was evident when it came to identifying and prioritizing ideas, not to mention the delighted face of the Innovation Practice Manager. Between the teams, a total of sixteen promising and priority ideas were recommended. Two of the ideas were immediately recognized as having the potential to resolve two highly classified and critical issues with which the organization was wrestling.

In the end, a five-hour investment in training and immediate application of the learning to a critical organizational challenge enabled the Innovation Practice to create multiple points of value for the organization.  Value was driven through the engagement of middle managers using sound decision-making practices to produce and select novel, game changing ideas with high potential to contribute to the organization’s ability to meet client needs. The Innovation Practice Manager had a greater pool of high-potential ideas to work with. The Innovation Practice Team and middle managers now have a sustainable and repeatable process for working together in the future to generate, identify and prioritize high potential ideas. Middle managers have a repeatable process, the protocols, tools and wherewithal to engage their own teams in more productive brainstorming sessions.

Not bad for a 5 hour investment of time!

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