Which of these do you think is the most important skill for a leader of innovation?

  1.  Setting the vision, goals and metrics
  2.  Generation of great ideas
  3.  Selection of the best ideas
  4.  Starting exploration projects
  5.  Listening to customer feedback
  6.  Managing the portfolio and stage-gates
  7.  Gaining support and resources from other departments
  8.  Killing the weaker projects
  9.  Launching new products or services
  10.  Celebrating success

They are all important but I believe that the most vital is #8 – the ability to kill off the weaker projects.  Generating good proposals for innovative products and services is fairly easy.  Starting evaluation projects is harder but you need to start many because no-one knows which will succeed.  If you start 20 projects it is likely that you are going to have to eliminate at least 17 or 18 of them.  Typically fewer than 15% of trials make it through to final product launch.  So it is crucial to remove the losers as soon as possible so as to release vital resources for the potential winners.

The normal way to eliminate projects is through applying strict criteria at each of the gates in the stage-gate process before further funding is allocated.  But this can be slow and mechanistic so faster and better decisions are often needed.

Here are some bad reasons to kill innovation projects.  The top executive(s) believes:

  1.  Customers won’t like it
  2.  We cannot crack the technology
  3.  We cannot make money doing this
  4.  The competition have a better offering
  5.  It does not meet a real customer need
  6.  It does not fit with our strategy and direction

Here are some good reasons to kill innovation projects.  After bringing a protoype before some customers we discovered that:

  1.  Customers didn’t like it
  2.  We could not crack the technology
  3.  We cannot make money doing this
  4.  The competition have a better offering
  5.  It does not meet a real customer need

Note that the first five items in each list are essentially the same.  What is the difference?  The first list is based on opinion.  The second list is based on evidence.  The opinions of senior executives are dangerous because they think they are experts.  But it is extremely hard to know in advance which innovations will really strike a chord.  It is best to test the idea.  When you test you get hard evidence of what is likely to succeed or fail.  Furthermore you get valuable feedback for improvements.  Very often when customers see the prototype they will say, ‘I don’t like this but I do like that.  And if you changed it in this way it would be better.’  They make insightful suggestions which inform your decision.  The result is that the product which finally makes it to market is quite different from the first prototype which was trialled.

Finally do not kill a project because it does not fit with your current strategy and portfolio.  If customers love it and you can build it and you can make money with it then branch out, be bold and build it.