“Nearly every person who develops an idea works at it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged.”
― Thomas Edison
While ideas can pop up unexpectedly, when we're focused elsewhere, the tactical process of bringing an idea to reality is demanding. Taken on as a marathon, the process is simply too draining to sustain for long. Consistent innovation requires breaking the process into smaller “legs.” At The Energy Project, we call this method “sprinting.”
The benefit of adopting a series of steps, rather than trying to take on the innovation process all at once, is that it allows us to regroup between “sprints,” recover our energy, track our progress, and pivot if necessary, creating a reliable, repeatable process. In the science community, this strategy -- otherwise called the scientific method -- is tried and true, but it turns out, a similar set of steps can lead to reliable innovation:
1. Know the problem you are solving for. Identify which problems are top priorities for your company and end users. Ensure you are directing your energy towards something that is worth solving. After you’ve chosen a problem to focus on, explore different solutions.
Tip: Do not fall for your first idea! I once had a mentor tell me to “kill my darlings,” meaning, ruthlessly edit and drop ideas, even the ones that you’re passionate about. I still struggle with this, but there is a simple and powerful antidote to blind dedication to one idea: go back to the problem statement and brainstorm other solutions.
2. Research. Find out how others have tried to solve the problem. Analyze what worked for them and what didn’t.
Tip: Don’t fall into the “originality trap” of not using others’ insights. Why? Think of my grandmother who never learned how to cook but refused to use recipes, claiming originality. The results: inedible. The more knowledge you have, the better the odds your solution will work. Try to become an expert on the problem and available solutions.
3. Set quantifiable goals for your solution. This will help you justify the expenditure of company resources and later evaluate the success of the idea. Put aside any ideas that can’t meet the goals you’ve set or are too difficult to implement. From what remains, choose one idea to try first.
Tip: New ideas are inherently risky. For those ideas that require a minimization of risk to get buy-in, gather proof that the solution will work. Ideally, you should conduct a low cost pilot, but if this isn’t possible, try to find case studies and other research that supports why this idea would work for your company.
4. Create an implementation plan. What are the steps involved in rolling out your idea at your company? Who will need to get involved? It is rare that you can successfully ideate and implement a solution without approval or advice from other stakeholders. Ideally, the people you share your idea with become supporters of it.
Tip: Talking to other people, especially the people who will end up using your solution, will help you refine and improve the idea while you get buy in.
5. Refer back to the measurable goals you set. After your idea has been implemented, check how the solution is doing compared to the goals you set at the beginning of this process. If the solution worked well, share the news. If the idea failed to meet expectations, debrief why you think it didn’t work, then refine. If it can’t be tweaked, go back to the list of ideas you created at the beginning of the process and try a different one. Most ideas fail, so persistence is key to solving a problem.
Tip: Always thank the people who helped you implement and design a solution. It doesn’t matter if the solution failed to hit your goals or succeeded. Acknowledging your supporters’ contributions will make them want to work with you again.
Once you've had a chance to try out this process, it's important to time to reflect. What worked really well? What still needs improvement? The more you practice, reflect, and iterate the process, the more fluid and reliable it will be.