Some of these constraints are particularly relevant to small businesses. The organizational level, for example, is where many promising ideas fizzle out: The company simply doesn't have the manpower or resources for product testing or extensive market research.
Owens says small-business owners can also unintentionally stifle innovation at the group level, as he saw firsthand with one company he advised: "The founder thought he had hired all these innovative people, but he wasn't seeing results. It turned out that when everyone was in the conference room brainstorming, the founder would be saying no, because he saw the new ideas as threatening to his basic concept of the company. He was killing innovation, because he didn't realize how his behavior was affecting others."
The solution was what Owens refers to as "basic process stuff": allowing ideas to be generated in one session -- without deciding on anything -- then assessing them separately.
Small companies also can trip up at the industry level, when their products have to compete on a large scale. When Owens worked for a company that made iPod accessories, he says the key to getting their products stocked at Wal-Mart was not their design talent, but their supply-chain follow-up. "It was not enough to make a cool product," he says. "The challenge was getting the accessories exactly where
wanted them, exactly when they wanted them. It meant building a new IT system and putting people on the ground in China. I ended up focusing on activities that didn't seem directly related to innovation."
For innovation to succeed, then, it not only has to pass the "new" test, it must pass the "reality" test -- two very different concepts. It means mastering theoretical "what if" thinking alongside practical, detail-oriented know-how. It means recognizing that "innovation" is not just about making a new product: It can be applied to computer systems, supply chains or employee schedules -- anything that helps your company work better. "We should acknowledge both small, incremental changes and more dramatic shifts," Owens says. "Both have value."
Although it's daunting to think of all the challenges each idea must face to survive, Owens says assessing new concepts from these six different perspectives ultimately saves time, energy and regrets. "You need to become strategic about anticipating problems," he says. "All this mundane stuff matters. Just having an idea is not enough."
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