Ideas may be plentiful, but getting the good ones to market can be difficult, if not impossible.Why are some companies able to achieve this task better than others? Harvey Briggs takes a look at five traits observed in companies that are highly effective at executing their innovation plan.

The implementation gap

Last year, McKinsey released a survey revealing that 84% of executives think innovation is extremely important to the future of their companies. In other good news for innovators, the survey also reported that most executives account for innovation at strategic planning time.

The bad news?

Only 39% say they’re good at bringing new products and services to market. They cite lack of a formal process and poor internal alignment as the major reasons for this. Exacerbating this is the fact that many companies have reduced R&D investments over the past few years in order to make themselves look more attractive to Wall Street. And while most large companies have structures that make interdepartmental collaboration difficult if not impossible it really boils down to this:

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.

In fact, we’d argue that the ideas necessary for successful product innovations and new business development already exist within the walls of most companies. They just have trouble getting them out. That’s why many companies have to reach crisis stage before they can implement any meaningful innovations.

Think about it. The idea for the minivan had been kicking around for years, but it wasn’t until Chrysler was on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1980s that they were able to put together a program to develop and introduce this game-changing vehicle. Apple was on the edge of irrelevancy when they found the focus and discipline to create the product that saved the company: the iMac.

What can we learn from these companies so we can implement meaningful innovations before our companies are flirting with disaster?

Here are five traits we’ve seen in companies that are highly effective at executing their innovation plan.

  1. Give your team a mission with unrealistic expectations. Great teams thrive on challenges. Easy begets lazy and lazy begets ordinary. If you really want to change the game, set a goal that most will consider unreasonable. If you ask for 50% improvement and only get 25% that’s better than asking for 5% and meeting your goal. When you ask for the unreasonable, you force people to think differently. They start challenging assumptions and breaking rules. They find novel approaches. They create real value.
  2. Remove the barriers between departments. Take the people you need from research, engineering, programming, design, marketing, etc. and put them together not just on paper, but in the physical space to create a dedicated new product development team. This may be a dedicated war room where team members meet regularly to share their progress and ideas or even co-locating multiple disciplines in one area for the life of the project. You solve problems faster when people communicate face-to-face rather than hiding behind email exchanges.
  3. Appoint an executive level champion for every project. No project ever succeeds without a clear champion who is authorized to make decisions, provide the necessary resources, and fight the good fight with all the naysayers. There is always a good reason to kill a great idea. FedEx wouldn’t exist today if Fred Smith had listened to his professor at Yale. The Absolut Vodka bottle wouldn’t have its iconic shape if they had listened to the focus groups that felt it was too different from existing brands in the category. Without executive level support, the odds for a real breakthrough product are greatly reduced.
  4. Speed the process by having more frequent, but less onerous reviews. The Stage-Gate Process is a good one, but when reviews require days of preparation and even the most peripherally involved person is given veto power over a project, great ideas suffer. Rather than blindly follow a mandated process, ensure you have the right people reviewing the right data at the right time. This will vary from project to project depending on its complexity, scale and timeline.
  5. Don’t wait until the end of the process to start the marketing. Build your marketing right into the product. If you know a key point of differentiation is, for example, simplicity, design it in with obvious cues. Too many companies treat marketing as an afterthought and miss an opportunity to amplify their position through the execution of features and design.

Innovation is inherently risky, but by implementing these initiatives, companies can mitigate their risk and improve their odds for success in the market.

About the author:

Harvey has spent over 25 years creating both award-winning communications and new products for such brands as Chevrolet, Pepsi, Kraft, Kimberly Clark, Mercury Marine and many others. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he prepared for this modern world by studying Latin. Harvey served on the Board of Directors of the Product Development and Management Association and has spoken on the subjects of branding, advertising creativity, and innovation at conferences across the country. Harvey is the founder and Director of Disruption of OBX Thinking, a product innovation and marketing firm in the US.