Innovation Mullet: Simple in the Front, Complex in the Back

By: Hutch Carpenter | November 15, 2010

On a LinkedIn discussion, someone asked: “Structured or un-structured innovation. Which works better?” There are a number of ways that could be answered. I look at it this way:

What’s the simplest structure you can live with?

I’m focusing on the application of simplicity as much possible in the innovation process. But I’m also a realist, and recognize that bigger ideas often touch on multiple parts of the organizational ecosystem (as noted by Don Norman). So some level of complexity is required to include an idea on the corporate project manifest.

Which leads to the title of this blog. A comical way of describing the mullet hairstyle is, “Business in the front, party in the back.” I adapt that to the innovation management process. Not that innovation is a mullet, mind you…

The Idea Screening Threshold

The clearest measure of the simplicity of the front-end process is the level of detail required to submit an idea. Organizations set this to meet the requirements of their processes and the people charged with evaluating ideas. This decision has an impact on the level of community participation. I call this the idea screening threshold:

Participation will be affected by the amount of detail required on idea submission. Greater detail means a reduced number of ideas. I base this hypothesis on the empirical findings of the web industry, and its testing of conversion rates for site visitors. For instance, these results were reported on the mega blog Search Engine Land:

Here’s a real life example that illustrates the testing process. This b-to-b company runs a search advertising campaign that encourages prospects to download a trial version of the firm’s software which they can use for 30 days, at no charge, prior to purchasing the product.

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  • The company’s original registration form contained 15 fields presented in a three-page format. Conversion rate was 5.5% with this form
  • The second form tested contained five required fields, and response rate increased to 9.8%
  • The final form tested was very, very simple and contained only two required fields (email address and country). The response rate sky-rocketed to 15.5%

Certainly the motivations for signing up for a software trial differ from posting an idea. But the core element – that more required information reduces participation – is one that I believe applies for any voluntary activity.

When I use the terms simple versus complex, the mockups below illustrate my point:

Now there may be some very good reasons for making the upfront process of idea submission more complex:

  • Internal routing: Different executives, managers, experts see idea based on attributes
  • Proof of idea’s value: Answers here give immediate sense of the idea’s value to others
  • Screening mechanism: Only the most passionate about their idea will submit

If that’s what required, then get ‘er done as they say. But there is a better way to manage the innovation process…

Simple in the Front, Complex in the Back

Keeping things simple on the front end sends the signal that: “we want your ideas, even if they’re small, even if they’re incomplete.” The visibility these ideas receive will spark different innovation thoughts. This is something that Steven Johnson talks about in his presentation, that ideas are networks of other ideas.

Of course, it’s not enough to just have ideas and discussions around them. To create impact, ideas actually need to be executed. This is where the more complex part of the process comes in.

Ideas need to get on the various agenda of the organization. Part of that process? Have the groups affected by an idea weigh in, and become part of the team. Besides buy-in, the organizational machinery is there is execute on prioritized initiatives. You want it to provide feedback, refinement and commitment to ideas.

For instance, in Figure 1 above, check out those screening field examples – estimated ROI, required system changes, etc. That’s not what should be at the front end. Those are the evaluation activities that need to happen after the initial idea submission.

For your innovation program, maximize emergence and collaboration at the front end, organizational alignment and vetting at the back end.