If you’ve come looking for a magic bullet—a single, proven path to successful innovation—I have to be the one to break it to you: that innovation unicorn does not exist. Even so, there are steps you can take to improve the process of innovating in your company.

In this post, I’ll lay out a framework we use here at Skookum to prioritize innovative concepts. In doing so you can dramatically improve your outcomes, innovate faster, and increase the efficiency of your innovation efforts. Use this as a roadmap and tailor your own process for prioritizing innovative concepts according to your company’s unique approach, markets, current state and more.

1. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Before we even begin attempting to decide which of our innovative concepts are worth moving forward, there is much research to be done. It’s critical that your team understand what’s going on in the world in which you hope to innovate. At the very least, this is where you will undertake:

  • An analysis of the market and relevant new technologies.
  • Research into changes in regulations and other outside factors that change how the market works.
  • Trends analysis; there are many methodologies for this, but at the very least you should have your analysis formalized and documented.
  • Customer Journey Mapping, which doesn’t need to be finely detailed but should demonstrate a solid understanding of how customers engage with both your products and your competitors’.

It is in this research that you will begin to identify the gaps in which the greatest innovation is possible (and those areas that might seem promising at first, but are not worth pursuing).

2. Separate your innovation from the technology.

One of the most crippling mistakes teams can make in innovation is beginning with a technology and working backward from it. We tend to think of innovation as new tech, but it’s a dangerous mindset to consciously avoid.

It’s easy to fall into a sort of dream/best case scenario mindset if you begin with the technology. “We’ll get an app, and then we’ll use marketing to get users, and then we’ll monetize it.” Going all in on technology can be a time consuming and expensive path completely devoid of the quick wins and organic growth you’re going to need to keep support and funding flowing.

Instead, let the gaps in your customer experience and in the market guide your innovation. AirBnB is a great example of this approach. Hotel booking technology wasn’t new. Search and results filtering technology wasn’t new. The market already existed; the innovation was in finding a way to connect underserved markets with one another using existing technology.

3. Achieve buy-in through scoring and discussion.

How many times have we seen this scenario? An individual or small group come up with an idea and work tirelessly at iterating, through proving a minimum viable idea to themselves and one another and maybe even all the way on to having developed a prototype. They pitch the concept to the company’s executives, who are completely blank-faced. They pitch it to internal team members, scrambling to find some kind of support—anything to help move it forward.

Why doesn't anyone else get it? We worked so hard at making sure this was the best path!

You can be a visionary in a startup, but enterprises are a completely different beast. Buy-in must happen early and often. In an enterprise, you’re constantly challenged by those around you. Politics are inescapable. From the earliest stages of innovation, you need to think about how others perceive you and how you demonstrate value. The bottom line is this: you cannot innovate without buy-in and funding.

Build rapport and get others invested in the process of prioritizing innovation. You can foster good faith early on with a few quick wins. With your research in hand, you can demonstrate and share your understanding of trends, market conditions, your company’s capabilities, and gaps in your customer journey with various stakeholders. Who do you think should be at the table? Anyone whose support you may need later on could have valuable input at this stage of the process, be they IT, operations, marketing, sales, etc.

Together, you can tackle scoring and discussion collaboratively, with a quantifiable way of measuring priority. Discuss the research and each stakeholder’s thoughts on it collectively, but score individually. Of all of the ideas you come up with, perhaps only 1 in 20 is a good one. It’s important that the most viable ideas are identified through this objective scoring and not through groupthink or discussions dominated by the strongest opinions and personalities.

4. The litmus test: can it make money?

This is where you can really discover which innovative concepts are worth working on and where you’ll find the greatest value. Now you have some rough sense of priority, it’s time to do some rough calculations around potential value. It’s a quick litmus test that will allow you to take a pass on the ideas less likely to pan out into a valuable business result.

This is a pretty straightforward exercise that must be undertaken with realism and objectivity. Being too optimistic at this stage can mean advancing ideas you won’t be able to fund later on.

5. Don’t stop now…

Once you have this framework in place, it’s important that those involved understand it isn’t a one-time exercise. Innovation is a mindset. Ideally, you’re going to innovate across all three horizons: immediately, in the short-term, and over the life of your company.

This healthy mix of ideas gives you those quick wins you need to prove the viability of your innovation efforts in order to get support and funding for those ideas worth advancing. On the first horizon, you have simple changes and other ideas that are quick to implement. On the second, you can look at changing your offering, launching new products or otherwise innovating on a one to three-year timeframe.

On the third horizon are those revolutionary, culture-shifting innovations that are incredibly difficult to win support and funding for outside of a proven framework of information gathering, objective scoring, and collaborative discussion. These are the innovations with a three to five-year timeframe (or even longer) that can change the way customers interact with your brand, how employees interact with one another and customers, and more.