Don't Ignore What Darwin Teaches

In new product development, an idea must pass four tests to be truly viable. If your idea fails any of them, move on

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

—George Orwell

George Orwell and Charles Darwin got it right, at least when it comes to new product development.

When you are trying to come up with the next big thing, you want to start with as many ideas as possible. In fact, research and experience tell us that starting with hundreds of ideas will dramatically increase your innovation success rate.

So, the first half of the Orwell quote is correct: Initially, all animals (ideas) are indeed equal.

But the problem here is obvious: If you have a couple of hundred potential ideas, you really don't have any. You need a way to sort through them all to find the ones that, as Mr. Orwell might say, "are more equal than others."

The least promising concepts must be eliminated as quickly as possible, and since you are leading this charge, natural selection is up to you. So let us give you four Darwinian Innovation rules. Humanely kill the idea if:

The CEO doesn't like it. It's as simple as this: "If the Alpha ain't happy, no one is happy." It is virtually impossible to gain the necessary support for a new idea if the CEO—or anyone with substantial power in senior management ranks—is against it. You can complain about this until the cows come home, but it is a fact of corporate life. Want to save thousands of hours? Pushing the wrong ideas will waste time and money and turn you into a martyr. Natural selection has already taken place; you just need to realize it.

You can't build a moat around it. If you can't protect the idea's underlying intellectual property through patents, superior distribution, or something else, pat yourself on the back for coming up with a really cool idea—and start looking for a different one. The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of time and money educating the market about how wonderful your new product or service is, only to have 8,327 competitors rush in and knock you off once you gain a toehold. They will be able to sell their version of your great idea for less because they don't have to recoup development costs. You did the development work for them—for free.

It doesn't fit your criteria (I). This has two parts. The first has to do with brand alignment and is best explained by example. Say your company sells low-end cosmetics through the nation's drug and discount stores, and thanks to a remarkable stroke of luck, you have developed a truly effective wrinkle cream that you are absolutely convinced could sell for $500 an ounce. You are clearly a rock star, or at the very least, a chemistry genius. Sadly, unless you are prepared to start a new division, under a new brand name, either license the idea to someone else or forget about it. People will not be looking to your company for high-end stuff.

It doesn't fit your criteria (II). O.K., the idea fits your brand, but can it pass key hurdles set by you and your management team? Here are some common examples:

A)"We can bring it to market by X date." If you can't go from idea to marketplace in a fairly short period, the concept is going to cost you too much to develop, lose momentum, and/or make you vulnerable to being overtaken by the competition.

B)"We can produce it." Show us an idea session, and we'll show you an R&D guy with high blood pressure. It is critically important to understand manufacturing possibilities and limitations. Is outsourcing a consideration? Have you brought experts in from outside to help you see possibilities and solve production and operational challenges?

C)"This is a big idea." Unless it shows the ability to increase revenues substantially—typically 10% of sales for a small company and at least $50 million for a large one—drop it. It will not garner the internal support it takes to drive even the greatest ideas to market. (The exception is an incremental idea within a planned portfolio of new product launches—i.e. the first in a new line of drill bits you are going to bring to market.)

Here's one last tip. In every organization is a natural pull between safe ideas (evolutionary) and industry-changing ideas (revolutionary.) Push your team to create revolutionary ideas. Then subject them to the four tests above. Big ideas survive; the runts don't. The weak ideas will die off—thank you, Mr. Darwin—and you will be left with those strong enough to face the fierce competition and ferocious appetite of your waiting consumers.

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