Redefining innovation

Is a good idea only as good as the cash it generates?

Innovative ideas are a dime a dozen, according to Jim Andrew, senior partner at big-time consultancy BCG. In fact, at most companies, coming up with great concepts for a product, service, or process isn’t even an issue. But turning those ideas into money … ah, there’s the rub.

I caught up with Andrew last week when he was pitching his book, Payback: Reaping the Rewards of Innovation, due out in January. Although he doesn’t write exclusively about IT, I pressed him for ways in which tech pros could channel their creative impulses to get ahead.

His advice is single-minded: “Creativity is generally a really good thing. But at the end of the day, you have to make sure it shows up on the bottom line.” And as IT steadily gains influence in the boardroom, Andrew insists, the need to match technical innovation to business goals, and to generate money from those ideas, becomes critical.

Despite all this highfalutin talk of innovation, Payback is not a strictly theoretical exercise. Andrew and co-author Harold Sirkin offer guidance for turning innovations into moneymakers, describing how to calculate a “cash curve,” how to assess potential benefits, even how and when to kill a project.

On that last note, Andrew brought up a point that will resonate with many IT managers. The typical project portfolio, he says, can be divvied into three parts. A third are proven winners. Another third are still in their infancy; it’s too early to tell how they’ll turn out. The last third have either outlived their usefulness, never got off the ground, or never will. Even so, they’ve been kept alive for any number of misguided reasons, from favoritism to sheer force of habit.

Sound familiar? Then maybe you should examine your full slate of products -- and advocate pulling the plug on any losers. In my book, that qualifies as a great idea.