Hands up who has an ideas platform.

Hands up who has an innovation team or a lab.

What about email?

How many new business ideas would your receive in your email each week?

Or month?

What about informal and formal chats, hackathons or pitching competitions?

There’s an abundance of ideas, right?

Almost every leader I know has an “innovation backlog” – a collection of great ideas, opportunities and plans that never get implemented. Time is too short. Implementation takes too long. Or our focus on quarterly goals narrows our ability to accelerate and incubate new projects.

There is always a reason – or excuse – to file an innovative idea away for later.

But I firmly believe that leadership is about decision making and action. Applying lean startup principles to the business of being a leader will help us to a certain extent, but how do we go about exercising judgement? When we are inundated with information and ideas, judgement can be clouded. What we need is a way to find clarity.

Prioritizing the Aha Moment

One way of prioritizing your innovation backlog is to assess each idea  in terms of the “Aha moment”.

By quickly scanning each of the ideas, you are looking for a moment of “realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension”. Those that don’t make that first cut can be ignored. Yes, ignored. Or better yet, deleted.

As leaders we must actively trust our experience and capability. We can’t second guess our decisions each and every time. We need to back ourselves.

In doing so, remember, you are not making this decision in isolation. You are looking for the next link in the chain. As Steve Roesler suggests, Aha moments are not the end result of a process, but the beginning.

Innovation is Not Either/Or

It is important to remember that innovation isn’t a winner takes it all game – especially in the early stages. For while the Aha moment signifies something new, or something that needs to change, it’s the leader’s challenge to take on the new while still delivering against existing targets, commitments and strategies. In many ways it can be like juggling with chainsaws.

Scott Anthony, author of The Little Black Book of Innovation, explains this in terms of business “operating systems”:

… leaders have to figure out how to manage two distinct operating systems: one that minimizes mistakes and maximizes productivity in today’s business versus one that encourages experimentation and maximizes learning in tomorrow’s business. It isn’t either/or. It is both/and.

In pursuing this both/and approach, leaders must pursue innovation consciously and completely. In my view, we can’t afford to allow innovation by exception, we need innovation by design:

We must consciously and deliberately set an innovation agenda. We must bring the best of the Skunk Works decision making into our design process. We must bolster this with technical skill, architecture and security. And we must engender trust and support from our teams, stakeholders and customers. We must engineer and structure our teams and processes to amplify the impact of innovation. And we must incentivize it.

The Four Stages of Full Cycle Innovation

What does this look like? It’s what I call “full cycle innovation”.

Full Cycle Innovation has four stages:

  1. Open innovation
  2. Applied R&D
  3. Product and platform development
  4. Commercialization.

I examine these four stages in more detail in a series of LinkedIn articles. Part 1 looks at moving from the ambitious idea into the marketplace and Part 2 looks at product, platform and commercialization. These frameworks provide a process that we can adapt to our businesses and unique needs – while allowing our business-as-usual activities to continue. It is the both/and model in action. And followed consistently and consciously, it allows you, to lead both today’s business and tomorrow’s.

Nina Nets It Out: Leaders struggle to balance the competing needs of near term and longer term objectives. But it doesn’t have to be that way. By taking a structured approach to innovation we can learn to balance new innovation alongside our existing businesses.