Turning Dead, Discarded Ideas Into Growth Platforms

By Prophet

Good business ideas sometimes die an unnatural and premature death. While benchmarks, stage gates, and filters can help prevent bad – and costly – decisions, sometimes ideas are just ahead of their time.

Revisited periodically, a company’s inventory of dead and discarded ideas may well be the source of new opportunities, if you shift your perspective. The fact is that few ideas can deliver the kind of transformative growth that business leaders salivate over. Yet casting an eye toward clusters of ideas, linked by similar benefits and dependencies, can yield opportunities to create rich, diversified, and durable growth platforms.

For example, when reviewing shelved ideas that came out of a series of global innovation workshops for a paper products and label company, we were able to identify clusters of ideas that relied on a common technology to communicate information about the freshness of meats and produce. From these clusters, a nutritional monitoring platform was developed that applied food labeling technology to a new type of label that could be applied to human skin. Now, people with chronic health conditions could wear non-intrusive monitors that give them easy to read information about things like blood sugar levels and body temperature.

Then there are the classic examples of repurposing old IP. 3M’s introduction of the Post It in the 1970s using a low strength adhesive developed nearly a decade earlier is probably the most well known. More recently, Pfizer was struggling with what to do about its sildenafil drug which wasn’t as effective in treating angina as they had hoped. But they did notice clusters of side benefits that, if positioned properly, could be marketed to a completely different user group. Six years later, the FDA approved Viagra for the marketplace.

Such breakthrough innovations take the dedication of resources to find and link ideas together. The good news is that the investment of time and resources can be relatively small. An “innovation audit” can be undertaken with just a handful of people who have visibility or relationships across the major externally and internally facing parts of the organization. Some businesses may have a formal innovation pipeline infrastructure that can be leveraged. But in most cases, the innovation audit team will have to leverage its collective network to uncover inventories of ideas and concepts that have been discarded, for whatever reason.

Innovation audits involve a process that can be scaled small, focusing on a specific region, function, or P&L, or can be broadened to uncover big, enterprise-wide initiatives that can create positive disruption in your industry. Here’s a briefframework for your approach:

Find and Explore Your Idea “Archives”

How companies generate and archive ideas can vary. Those that have a more mature innovation system may have a robust and detailed innovation pipeline of concepts that are bucketed by P&L, brand, or possibly region. Other organizations may have ideas buried in the hard drives of sales, marketing, R&D and sometimes HR. Therefore, the first step is to find inventories of ideas in whatever form they currently exist. P&L and marketing leaders are usually a good place to start your search since they are typically the budget owners and de facto historians of a product or brand’s evolution.

Study Ideas, Look for Patterns

Once you’ve collected your inventory of ideas, apply several different filters to identify the most powerful clusters. For starters, look for similarities across the following:

Target – groups of ideas that will surprise and delight a common audience segment.

Occasions – day parts, touchpoints, or other points in time that can be owned or shaped by a common set of ideas.

Asset – technologies, intellectual property, infrastructure, and capabilities shared across the idea inventory.

Trends – new developments in the industry, marketplace, or culture that ideas could build upon.

Frame of reference – opportunities to play in a completely new space.

Experiment with your clusters, layering filters as a means of identifying the richest opportunity areas. Try making a gut-level assessment of feasibility and business impact to rank the relative strength of your clusters.

Regroup, Reconsider, Recombobulate

Continue breaking down your clusters into sets of individual ideas that complement, support, or follow each other. Idea sets that can be deployed over time will provide more flexibility and will be more resilient to unforeseen issues or disruptions. Ideally, you should have a mix of quick-win ideas and long-term plays that could deliver big returns over the long term.

For example, a sports nutrition company with a new technology – let’s call it “X Fuel” that improve the body’s ability to break down and use carbohydrates in food would aim to build a portfolio that have the following types of product concepts:

  • Existing Category – Existing Product with X Fuel – for Current Consumer
  • Existing Category – Existing Product with X Fuel – for New Consumer
  • Existing Category – New Product with X Fuel – for Current Consumer
  • Existing Category – New Product with X Fuel – for New Consumer
  • New Category –New Product with X Fuel – for Current Consumer
  • New Category – New Product with X Fuel – for New Consumer

Planning and Mapping

With your idea sets identified, you can begin to build out your business plan, prioritize development sequence, and inform the level of investment required to realize your growth goals.

Using the X Fuel example above, developing and deploying line extension-type ideas first will create opportunities to assess the appeal of the new benefit to a broad set of consumers with low risk. As confidence increases around the ability to create demand around the benefit to a larger audience, high investment/high impact product concepts in existing and new categories open the door for a company to build first mover advantage with their technology.

Putting such a process in place takes a combination of rigor, hard work, and creative thinking. But developing the ability to breathe new life into discarded ideas by clustering their potential will ultimately be more fruitful than starting from scratch. It also will lead to richer and more durable growth platforms over time.

David Warren (dwarren@prophet.com) is an Associate Partner with Prophet, a strategic brand and marketing consultancy that helps its clients win by delivering inspired and actionable ideas.

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