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Six Questions Every Would-Be Innovator Should Ask


How successful innovation can be shaped from the beginning of a project—by asking one question at a time

By Renee Hopkins and Gwen Smith Ishmael

We often make innovation more complicated than it needs to be, analyzing everything only to miss the critical factor that would lead to success. Companies invest time and money only to find they've missed the mark. Afterward, they wonder how they could have overlooked the one or two things that clearly would have made a difference between success and failure.

Innovation is legitimately hard to predict. But there must be a way to gain a clearer picture of an unknown future. Based on in-depth studies of 20 innovation stories—both successes and failures—we propose a six-question framework that helps companies gain a clearer picture up front of what factors they must consider to make their innovation efforts successful.

By using this framework, companies can assess their innovation efforts in a way that allows them to focus their efforts in the right places, avoid oversights, and increase their chances of success.

It sounds simple—but the simplicity of the framework is its strength. The questions are not meant to be answered through extensive research or in-depth analysis of existing data. Rather, this is a heuristic practice that can help executives make smart choices quickly.

Question No. 1: How well does this innovation effort fit the current organization?

This is a tricky question to answer, especially early on. A question about "fit" often is used as a go/no go checkpoint to boot out innovation efforts that might result in products that are too "different" or are outside the organization's core.

Neither of these is a reason in and of itself not to pursue an innovation. In fact, many disruptions do not "fit"—that's one of the things that make them disruptive.

Yet a consideration of fit offers useful information on how to proceed. Use this question to identify challenges a particular innovation might pose because it's so different from what the organization is used to and to visualize in what ways fit issues might determine or affect success.

Question No. 2: What degree of strategic advantage does this innovation effort provide?

This question can reveal potential conflict between the benefits of an innovation and the volume of resources needed to execute it. The challenge is to identify where you might encounter resistance stemming from a perceived imbalance in the work/reward ratio.

Innovations that provide a clear strategic advantage not only stand a good chance of being successful, but they can also, as a side benefit, generate esprit de corps within the company, since it's easy for everyone to see their benefits.

Question No. 3: How well does this innovation satisfy customer needs?

This question sheds light on the potential demand for the innovation. The challenge here is to visualize in what ways customer demand might affect the successful outcome for your innovation. If adding features and functionality as a result of customer research results doesn't result in a change in market share, try asking customers, "What is your biggest concern?" The answer to that question should allow you to start to identify the jobs your customers are actually trying to get done. Products, features, and functionality that satisfy these jobs will be more successful.

Question No. 4: How might we pursue this innovation?

This question is designed to focus your thinking on the various implementation paths available and the potential challenges associated with each path.

Admittedly, this could be a particularly difficult question to answer at this stage. Again, the value is in the process of thinking through the answer and the other questions that this process raises. Some of those questions might be: Do we have the ability to build this innovation ourselves? Should we partner with someone else? What legal and intellectual property issues might be associated with this innovation?

Question No. 5: How clear is the definition of success for this innovation?

This question might look easy to answer, but often it is not. While revenue, net market contribution, and cost reduction might provide clear objectives for existing products and services, these metrics might not be appropriate to evaluate an innovation.

For one innovation, simply moving from design to launch could be deemed a success; for another, customer satisfaction could be a more appropriate measure of success. The critical challenge here is to consider in what ways success metrics might in and of themselves determine the success of your innovation.

Question No. 6: How readily will management support this innovation effort?

Even in the most supportive cultures, innovation is a challenge. This question is designed to surface possible contradictions and tensions that could negatively impact the innovation effort. This may be the place where it's clearest that simply considering the question will affect success.

Something this basic can hold the key to success, because it's so common for an innovation to be derailed by a simple oversight, such as not recognizing that standard performance metrics might not apply to an innovation effort.

Asking simple questions such as these could help a company successfully execute a completely unfamiliar innovation by focusing attention on basic but important unknowns.

The knowledge gained from applying this framework is worth much more than the time required to do it—especially in cases where it exposes problems that can be corrected earlier, more easily, and much less expensively than if they had to be corrected later.

And in worst-case scenarios, the knowledge gained from the application of the framework could illuminate certain failure. That, too, is better understood before significant resources are committed.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Strategy & Innovation.

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