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Choking the Innovation Funnel

Whether your funnel is choking up the innovation process, or you want to choke the funnel with your bare hands out of innovation frustration, ask yourself: is it the funnel itself that’s flawed, or the process that people layer over it? To me, the funnel still seems like a good starting point, but it requires the right process and culture to make it a reality.

By Tamara Barber of the Affinnova Innovation Evolved blog

tom fishburne funnelMarketoonist Tom Fishburne does a good job illustrating what’s at the core of criticisms that people have of the innovation funnel. As unattractive as the idea of innovation is in this cartoon, at many companies the innovation process hasn’t changed much in the past fifty years. The funnel has its genesis in engineering circles in the 1960s, when NASA first introduced the phased model of project management, where each phase had to be reviewed and approved before moving on.

But it wasn’t until 1986, when Robert G. Cooper published his book Winning At New Products, that the idea of a phase-gate innovation process was adopted more widely in the business world.  Today, the innovation funnel is the more general depiction of the phase-gate process, where every part of the funnel is gated by a review to either move on to the next phase or not. In theory, the idea of moving from many ideas to a final new product innovation through a planful process makes sense.

But – as pointed out in Tom’s cartoon – some criticize the funnel by saying that the process behind it has a significant potential to chew up and spit out potentially successful ideas. So it’s not really the funnel that’s the issue, it’s the phase-gate process.

Some of the most common criticisms of this process I’ve found:

  • Service innovation is ignored. Most discussions around the innovation funnel and the phase-gate process have to do with physical products or engineering innovations. But very little is mentioned around how to innovate a service. This was recently pointed on a LinkedIn discussion on my earlier post, where one reader stated that I should “broaden the funnel to apply to the service industry. It works equally as well and it is the services environment that is in need of greater insight when it comes to such things as innovation…”
  • The focus of the process is on administration versus idea creation. David Nichols lists various criticisms of the innovation funnel, and one of his main thrusts is that the funnel and the process behind it have become a crutch that companies lean on when they want to have an innovation ‘method’ in place, but really don’t have the culture to support true product breakthroughs versus incremental improvements.
  • In fact, proper ideation isn’t supported. Most of the innovation funnel focuses on honing a smaller and smaller set of ideas. But if you don’t have a good process for generating great ideas in the first place you’re handicapped from the start. Furthermore, the Innovation Playground blog argues that the phase-gate process is best viewed as a project management framework, and that ideation must happen under a separate model.

This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list; for more, check out Reply To Stage-Gate Critics.

Whether your funnel is choking up the innovation process, or you want to choke the funnel with your bare hands out of innovation frustration, ask yourself: is it the funnel itself that’s flawed, or the process that people layer over it?  To me, the funnel still seems like a good starting point, but it requires the right process and culture to make it a reality.

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