Innovation’s 80/20 Rule

We’ve all heard the 80/20 rule time and time again for endless applications. 20% of the people do 80% of the work. 

20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes.

20% of motorists cause 80% of all accidents.

20% of beer drinkers drink 80% of all beer.

20% of the company’s innovators do 80% of the innovation.

But in this particular case the 80/20 rule applies to the amount of work, time, effort and energy is put into an idea.  Or more specifically, what % of the hard stuff is done when you create the idea vs. when you take it through development.

In one of my previous posts I shared the silly yet strangely frequent misperception that “the silver bullet idea” is not only real but it’s starkly apparent to all who see it.  Instead, I suggest that the first inspiration of something big and transformative can be met with maybe a little joy, maybe some hesitation and likely a boatload of dissent. 

Well, let’s now pretend that we have a crystal ball and we can indeed see what ideas will succeed and what ones will fail.  And let’s say that we’ve used that crystal ball and have identified the idea that we’ve just invented will indeed succeed.  How much of the hard work has been done?

Some would argue that 20% or less of the work is done.  There’s still the building and the finishing.  The organizing and the analyzing.  The scaling and the modeling to do.  That’s a lot of money to spend and money represents work being done.  We all know that.

Others would argue 80% of the mental energy is done.  I mean, if it was easy we would have thought of that idea already.  It would have been obvious.  And if you get the idea right, like any good spec worth it’s salt, it should almost produce itself.

What we observe is the 20/80 rule.  And sometimes the 10/90 rule in innovation.  For things that are truly meaningfully unique, there is more hard work AFTER you invent the idea than before.

You see, if this is something truly new and different, you can’t just toss it on the factory line and make it.  It’s DIFFERENT.  So you’ll have to do things DIFFERENTLY.

It’s not shaped like your other widgets, so it won’t work on your existing lines.

It’s not made of the same materials as your other, so your procurement team can’t go to the same bench of suppliers.

It doesn’t have the same function as your other widgets, so the sales team can’t stick it in the brochure with the other same-ol-same-ol stuff.

It doesn’t operate the same way as your other widgets, so your customers won’t know how to use it.

It doesn’t do the same things that your other widgets do, so you can’t price it the same way you do other things.

It’s “competitive set” isn’t the same as your other widgets, so you can’t benchmark the way you normally do.

And all the while you work your way through figuring out how the heck to make this work, you have to adapt the idea.  You make trade offs.  You balance pro’s and con’s.  You protect meaningful uniqueness at all costs even though the gravitational pull of the organization wants you to make it the SAME as everything else.  But you adapt, change and improve the idea.

So next time you roll up your sleeves and dive into a session to create ideas, don’t roll them down when you finish.  Keep those sleeves rolled up and break out the elbow grease, because the adventure’s just begun.