Your Totally Brilliant Idea Isn't Enough For Us

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- Change or die: It's the mantra of 21st century business, leading everyone from CEOs to home-office entrepreneurs on a continuous search for the next great idea. In a brutally competitive business environment, companies that don't innovate get left behind.

But innovation takes more than a "eureka" moment. The business world and society at large are traditionally risk averse, more likely to find flaws with a novel idea than celebrate it. True innovation means facing and conquering a gauntlet of hurdles. If you are able to anticipate and prepare for each one, you're more likely to end up with lasting change, rather than concepts that never make it past the conference room.
Innovation takes more than a "eureka" moment, since the business world and society at large are traditionally risk averse.

"We get excited about new ideas, then the world strikes them down," says David Owens, a professor of management and director of the Executive Development Institute at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management. "We end up in organizations that systematically quash creativity."

His own work experiences in the technology design field gave him first-person knowledge of how difficult it can be to bring a product to market successfully; curious about the various ways innovation fails, he began researching the subject. The result is Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation Without Even Trying, which looks at innovation from a macro perspective.

For a promising idea to survive, Owen says, it must overcome six categories of constraints:

1. The individual: Each person within a company must be empowered and encouraged to think creatively.

2. The group: The workplace environment must have processes in place that allow for effective sharing and assessing of ideas.

3. The organization: A promising idea will move forward only if the company as a whole is motivated and has the resources to make it happen.

4. The industry: A product has to pass the innovation test within its industry as a whole. If it doesn't offer something new and valuable to consumers, they won't buy it.

5. The society: Does the product fit with the norms and expectations of society? Just because something is new and unusual doesn't mean it will be embraced.

6. The technology: Will it work? R&D is the unglamorous but critical backbone of any innovation.

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 Wal-Mart ( WMT) 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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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.