Strategic Ideation: Stage 1 – Discovery

Ideation2Wordby Paul Lohnes, MBA, PMP
Published in the Project Post-Gazette, Issue 2014-02,  Project Post-Gazette

Continuing our discussions on the importance of strategic ideation, this blog will over the next four issues layout the major stages of this important, but many times mismanaged or ignored business process that should be the first thought of every ‘C’ level or member of the senior leadership team (SLT). Sadly, in other articles of the PPG, we have shown how the level of strategic thinking and focus in many American companies and organizations is taking a back seat to the crushing mandates of government regulations and requirements not to mention the growing threat of multi-nationalism and international competition due to faster transportation options and the ubiquity of the Internet. All business entities unless nurturing a hidden desire of suicide or early termination, MUST be implementing some form of strategic thinking, ideation, or portfolio optimization. If you are not moving, you are standing still, and those that stand still in business are usually ‘road kill.’

In a short review of the four stages of strategic ideation, we list the stages here as a review from the January 2014 PPPM Mini article that laid the groundwork for both the stages and steps of strategic ideation. This column will discuss the four stages of strategic ideation while the PPPM Mini column will handle the seven (7) steps with the first step, ‘obtaining the support of your SLT for strategic ideation’ discussed in the February 2014 PPPM mini. The four stages are:

  1. Discovery
  2. Research
  3. Analysis, and
  4. Prioritization

These stages lay the foundation for implementing ideation in the form that will produce the most benefits with the least amount of confusion and chaos – attitudes that seem to accompany strategic activities since it is only marginally presented to business executives during their formal education by those that do not practice it. Yes, we do mean the academics that write about it, but have hardly if ever experienced the dual dilemmas of balancing resources and directing organizational behavior to achieve mission/vision initiatives. This is akin to the movie director that makes the viewing public believe they have created something of reality, but in fact have only produced a façade of substance. We at the PPG are practicing business analysts (BA) and project managers (PM) at all levels of the organization.

The first stage of strategic ideation is DISCOVERY. Discovery is the messy, dirty, and seemingly chaotic foundation for what will ultimately become a new business mindset that should permeate the entire organization. This is precisely why many executives, commercial and governmental executives do not practice or support it after a small foray into its indeterminate nature. Discovery cannot be taught, and many times cannot be controlled. It must be allowed to take the form most appropriate for the context into which it is released like a wild animal seeking opportunity and advantages where it can without much regards for the final outcome.

The importance of discovery cannot be minimalized since without discovery, strategic ideation quickly turns into ‘doing what is normal,’ not what is beneficial to the long term viability of the organization. The distaste for discovery given its lack of formalization is what turns most senior executives from its embrace since it lacks the trappings of control or more importantly, lacks the handles for control and direction – a needed component for most SLT members. They like to feel that what occurs in their sphere of influences is at least ‘controlled chaos,’ if not experienced-laced foreknowledge. We do not hire nor install senior managers that know how to take risks by seeking out valuable information. Strategic or enterprise BA need to push for this mindset in their primary role of knowing the business practices of their employer while knowing that normal operations do not achieve the strategic initiatives that keep the organization alive and dynamic.

So, discovery is the stage where ideas are allowed to formulate or percolate, as we at the PPG like to say. Think about where all new and innovative ideas begin – in the minds of their creators. They are not written down, taught in MBA lectures, or retrieved from a white paper. They have to be grown in the incubator of business specific context – what is best for our company, our organization, our firm. While we can help you get started, the activities of discovery will be very unique and contingent on the understanding of your current organizational status (the As-Is) while thinking about where your horizons (mission/vision initiatives) and the path to these horizons will take you. The pioneers of any major innovative, game-changing concepts realize that the necessary ideas to support these paradigm shifts (relative to your organization’s current residence) do not take shape easily or without effort. However, ideas are everywhere, and source from anyone. They are not in the sole custody of the SLT, but can burgeon from any organizational participant from the mailroom to the boardroom.

The SLT and enterprise BA need to establish a conducive and supportive environment of ideation for without such care and feeding, ideas, fragile and elusive, can be destroyed with a single word or gesture of negativity. Have you ever seen the face of a child whose wide-eyed wonderment is obliterated by the single act of dismissal by their parents or teachers? This word is, “No!” It is a word that has ended the futures of many organizations, transferred ideas to competitors, and lost countless trillions for those stuck in this mindset that, “It is easier to say , No, then deal with the risks of saying, Yes.”

Discovery is all about RISK and risk taking. We would still be huddled in a damp, wet cave, cursing the dark and lightning without the mindset changes brought about by the discoverers of our world. We are not going to tout the discoveries of new lands, new technologies, or new innovative business processes since we are all aware of them; however, we are usually only aware of them AFTER they have progressed to the stage of analysis and prioritization: stages that are only valuable if the initial stages of discovery and research have been successful and fully implemented. But getting executives to agree to spend on such ‘foolishness or risky behavior’ is sometimes more difficult than obtaining agreements to do ‘what is normal,’ or what is comfortable. Discovery is about stepping out of these warm, protected perspectives and psychologically appealing mental constructs.

To continue and gain from discovery, an organization MUST encourage discovery both as a necessary business activity, one that is just a part of doing business as well as buying raw materials and producing an organization’s normal products and services. Organizations must also reward the discoverers and protect them from ridicule and teasing that often is the byproduct of those that seek the comfort and solidity of common or well-known shores. The discoverers must be given time and resources to bring their concepts into possible reality by the SLT members regardless of the functional areas in which the ideas began. Even the somewhat standardized world of accounting and financial reporting can benefit from new ideas and processes.

Finally, an organization will need to maintain the momentum that they begin for without such maintenance it will be more difficult to restart such a program if you have started, loss interest, stopped, and then attempt to begin the process again at a later date. You are better off not starting without some guarantee that your SLT will support the ideation discovery stage for at least 2 fiscal years. It takes time to create the environment in which idea discovery can take shape and begin to produce results. It is very much a ‘trial and error’ stage, but one that forms the basis for the other three states of strategic ideation.

Join us for the continuation of this series as we discuss stage 2: research.

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