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Setting a goal for innovation is a challenge for anyone trying to help a team do great things. But you must strike the right balance between a lofty moonshot and an achievable project.
Getting the balance right isn’t easy, and the stakes are big. Attempts at innovation often begin with much fanfare. A leader paints a picture of a better future. Teammates get excited. They believe in the mission and they aim for greatness.
But if the innovative vision sounds too grandiose, skeptics might laugh it off. They may figure it’s foolish to waste time on such a ridiculously unattainable goal.
On the other hand, a vision that’s too modest also poses risks. It’s tough to believe in innovation when the potential result is uninspiring and underwhelming.
How do you set the right goal for innovation?
Bold innovators can get carried away racing to do too much, too soon. In his book “Build,” author Tony Fadell warns not to “try to disrupt everything at once.” Fadell is credited for working on many of Apple’s (AAPL) popular products like the iPod and iPhone.
So how can leaders calibrate their ambition when setting a goal for innovation?
Beware of equating innovation with just producing a major breakthrough. If you set the bar too high, you’re bound to disappoint.
“Innovation doesn’t always have to be radical,” said Jay Rao, a professor of innovation at Babson College. “Everybody thinks all innovation is disruptive and destroys other businesses. But 99% of the time, progress is incremental. So betting all your eggs on radical is a recipe for bankruptcy.”
He suggests that leaders encourage their team to chip away at a well-defined problem by making step-by-step improvements. That’s better than resorting to hyperbole and proclaiming lofty goals.
If you’re excited about the potential impact of your innovative vision, you might speak with great passion about your goal for innovation.
“It’s not about your passion,” Rao said. “Your passion may not have a market.”
Instead, he advises leaders to guide their team to work on a challenging problem that, if solved, will breed success. Whether they radiate passion is less important than their ability to rivet everyone’s focus on making incremental progress to address a market or societal need.
It’s tempting to treat your innovative vision as revolutionary. But it’s better to stay grounded and think in terms of solving a problem.
When setting a goal for innovation, start by asking: “What will the customer be able to do after this innovation that they could not do before?”
“That way, you focus on what the customer wants and solving the customer’s problem,” said Johanna Rothman, a management consultant in Arlington, Mass.
She warns that some innovators keep adding features and grow increasingly ambitious about what they want to achieve, when “in reality the customer wants much, much less.”
It’s fine to be ambitious as you seek to innovate. Just make sure you’re nimble and open to change once you’re underway on your goal for innovation.
At every step, test your assumptions. Set benchmarks and track your results. Maintain open channels of communication so that you get wide-ranging feedback.
“You’ll want to do a whole bunch of discovery as you do delivery,” Rothman said. “You want to do testing as you go. That fluidity and replanning is important.”
If you’re convinced that your innovation will pay off, you might pursue it aggressively. Driven by your grand vision, you decide to let nothing stop you on your goal for innovation.
That’s admirable in theory, but risky in practice. The danger is you drain your resources on a pipe dream.
“Before you request capital or a major deployment of resources, have a small team of finance experts use a clear, consistent set of standards and methodologies to build out forecasting and your innovation business plan,” said Marissa Dent, head of innovation strategy and systems in Bain & Company’s New York office.
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