There is a huge paradox when it comes to the front end of innovation. Successful ideation requires finding the right tension between creativity (flexibility) and a systematic process (control). The paradox occurs from the complex nature of the ideation process. It involves many different simultaneous activities riddled with unclear goals and ill-defined results. Furthermore, this stage of innovation encounters high uncertainty and low information. As a result, it is often labeled the Fuzzy front end of innovation.

Flexibility vs Control

Complexity and uncertainty are two words that most managers don’t like hearing.Standardized processes help the organization continuously create valuable outcomes by implementing procedural steps. Thereby developing control to make sure things are done right.

Too much control reduces the effectiveness of the creative process. Identically, too much flexibility reduces the efficiency of the ideation phase. In result, reducing the overall quality of ideas produced.

Subpar ideation outcomes affect the future potential success of a project. Evidence shows these early activities have a strong influence on future decisions, resources, and cost.

How Can you Walk a Line between Flexibility and Control?

Here are four processes you need to consider implementing into the fuzzy front end of innovation:

Focus the Ideation

Define and communicate clear goals for the campaign together with clear reasoning on why ideation is essential. Using a specific issue or challenge helps increase the effectiveness of each campaign. Additionally, define resources for ideation and implementation. Combined, stakeholders will be creative towards a goal and share relevant experiences and knowledge that move ideation in the right direction.

Furthermore, by selecting issues and challenges that align with strategic objectives, Management is likely to choose ideas a more during the selection phase. In essence, create value for your organization.

Use an Iterative System

Early front end innovation management systems followed a sequential process. Firstly, they were simpler to implement in practice. Secondly, managers clearly defined steps, which they monitored and administered easily. Finally, guidelines determined when ideas proceeded further.

However, sequential models were too systematic and resulted in stunted creativity. For this reason, organizations should adapt more iterative systems. Even traditionally linear processes have evolved. A familiar example is the StageGate model that became more dynamic using the four F’s flexibility, focus, fluid stages, and fuzzy gates.

What’s important here is the ability to run parallel actions and allow for ideas to proceed in warranted situations, even if the idea has not met all the criteria. Likewise, it is necessary to develop feedback loops to increase iteration of ideas.

Gather Information

Information is vital in all stages at the fuzzy front end, from idea generation to development and finally selection. Over time, information decreases uncertainty. During this phase, consider how to collect and share it quickly and as cheap as possible.

One way is by providing access to information already available in the company. Firstly, increase the transparency of your organization’s current situation and the environment. It helps employees develop an understanding of areas for ideation. As mentioned earlier, it also provides focus.

Secondly, the efficiency of information collection increases by accessing your entire network. Initially, you provide access through who participates in the challenges. During ideation, you can provide further information creating feedback loops. Afterward, moving valuable ideas between teams for iteration and further development.

Finally, a significant catalyst in information gathering is understanding your customer. An excellent way to break away from existing feature updates is understanding the customer’s jobs to get done. As the saying goes, customers don’t want a drill, they want a hole.” This perspective was further popularized by the books Business Model Generation and Value Proposition Design and recently. Clayton Christensen. Definitely a great perspective to understand how to increase value for a customer.

Select Custom Criteria

It is important to the fuzzy front end of innovation to have multiple review points and specific selection criteria. Primarily, it reduces wasted resources at the same time increasing process transparency. Yet, a key component of a dynamic system is the ability to customize criteria.

In other words, define and communicate the selection criteria based on project’s unique situation. For example, criteria for a process improvement is dissimilar to an incremental innovation. Furthermore, have a real-time review process during ideation. As a result, it will shorten lead time and increase the agility.

Bonus Tip: Fuzzy Front End Ideas Need Top Management Support

Top management will always be a trump card for an idea. No matter how transparent your processes are or customized selection criteria. An idea will have the power to move forward when someone high up becomes involved. Consider when and how these stakeholders become involved in fuzzy front end. Early involvement could increase project buy in but stunt ideas with potential value. On the other hand, late or no involvement could result in no ideas moving forward. Even if the idea meets all other criteria.

What Should You Do Now?

Ideation during the fuzzy front end plays a key role in the future of success of the project. It influences future resource allocation, downstream decisions, and overall project cost. Walking the fine line between creativity and systematic processes can be a little easier if you are able to implement focus, iteration, information gathering and custom selection criteria into your ideation phase.