Most of the respected books on innovation will describe some of kind of innovation process. That sounds a little counter-intuitive, but it’s necessary, and it also happens to work very well … with a bit of careful treatment.

In reading these books, you’ll often see a depiction of a filter funnel or similar. The gist of the accompanying text is usually that it’s good to start with a very broad set of ideas, many of which will be filtered-out downstream, never seeing the light of day. This is also pretty solid advice. It can be made to work very well.

What tends to get less coverage in these respected tomes is the method by which we should filter. And this matters if we’re to end up with the best ideas on our shortlist … instead of the worst ones.

Unfortunately, human failings introduce many threats to success inside the filter funnel. Some of the most common are:

  1. The tendency to stay too wild and wacky for too long, and get overly-attached to some of our wackiest ideas irrespective of their real merit (the “Long Funnel”)
  2. At the opposite extreme, the tendency to rebel against the wild and wacky long-list by applying too much commonsense too quickly (the “Short Funnel”)
  3. The abandonment of facilitation, leading to stakeholder bias slanting the short-list (the “Leaky Funnel”)

So how to head these off?

First, treat every idea on your long-list as an equal of the others … until you have a defensible reason to think otherwise.

Second, be prepared to build-up ideas as you assess them. They should be incubated a little, so they can grow if their potential allows it, before anyone has chance to stamp them out.

Third, seek out quick estimates of the likely business benefits, using sales techniques like SPIN selling if necessary, and put those alongside top-down impact assessments, to create a rough estimate of the net benefit.

Finally, paint a picture which permits stakeholders to compare across the entire long-list before the short-list is agreed (a graph with benefit and impact axes works well). Invite as much feedback as you can.

Negotiating the funnel is harder than it sounds. It’s work ideally suited to consultants or other independent outsiders. Even you can’t bring someone in from outside, then try to find an independent facilitator with a reputation for open-mindedness, and with some experience of creative thinking in teams.

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