Fast Ideas for Slow Times

Innovation within limits is the order of the day. Here, three rules for conservative creativity.

Steve Saxe is a project manager at one of the most innovative companies in the world. Inside 3M, his product, a portable digital whiteboard that hit the market last year, has been billed by senior executives as a fast-track idea with the potential to do for meetings what Post-it notes did for the office. But these days, Saxe is wrestling with one question: “How can we double sales within the next six months?”


It’s a problem that has a lot of nuances. Do nothing new, and you won’t make a mistake. But do nothing new for too long, and you risk making the biggest mistake of all. So what is the right way to stick your neck out in sticky times? Here are three ground rules for practical innovation.

1. Do more of what matters.

“The only way you’re going to get out of this funk is to out-innovate and outcompete everyone else,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor and coauthor of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000). Results, Pfeffer says, start with relationships.

Dave Ridley, Southwest Airlines’ vice president of ground operations, oversees the airline’s customer experience at 59 airports. In an industry turned upside down by September 11, Ridley has come up with creative solutions to new customer demands and new security directives. “I couldn’t have gotten anything done if my team had not trusted me,” he says. Today, Ridley does more of what he has always done: “I spend a lot of my time with an open door and people in front of me.”

2. Test, screw up, learn — only faster.

According to Tom Kelley, general manager of the design and product-development firm IDEO, speed and simplicity are innovation’s watchwords. Kelley’s advice: “Leave the meeting today and the shop tomorrow with some embodiment of the idea that was discussed.”

How fast is fast enough? Recently, in the first meeting with a panel of surgeons looking for a new surgical tool, an IDEO employee abruptly left the room. Moments later, he came back with a prototype created from a few office supplies — a marker, a Kodak film canister, and a small orange clip — and handed it to one of the surgeons. The surgeon’s response: “Yeah, I’m thinking of something like this.”

3. Define innovation.

Leaders have to be very clear about what kind of innovation they’re looking for, says Alistair Corbett, a director at Bain & Company’s Toronto office and an expert on innovation. “One man’s radical innovation is another man’s incremental innovation,” he says.


To evaluate ideas, Corbett advises companies to create a systematic process that starts with the following questions: What could this idea be worth if it works? And is this idea more or less likely to work? After answering those questions, only push ahead on ideas that will make a material difference.

Consider 3M. More than a year ago, it launched 3M Acceleration, a corporatewide initiative to fast-track good ideas, from which Saxe’s team has benefited. “The idea,” he says, “is to make investments appropriate to the likely return on those investments.” Part of that effort is “2x/3x” — two times the idea velocity at three times the commercial success. “The key word is velocity,” says Saxe. “It’s not just speed but speed with direction.”