Escaping the 'GIGO' principle of innovation
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Escaping the 'GIGO' principle of innovation

Last week I began planning a comprehensive innovation project with a client. This project is highly important for this multinational corporation, which is seeking new applications in new industries for a profitable product that is now locked into one industry and application niche.

The first challenge in this complex project, I told the client, would be to understand -- and escape -- the GIGO principle of innovation.

Originating from computer science, GIGO stands for "Garbage in, garbage out". Basically, if you input unintended, even nonsensical, data ("garbage in") to a computer (operated by logical processes), then it will produce undesired, often nonsensical, output ("garbage out").

In more than a decade of work on 150 projects, I've seen how GIGO also applies to the field of innovation in five dimensions: project, process, money, time and people.

The project dimension: If you input an unintended, even nonsensical innovation case at the start, then it will produce undesired, often nonsensical, ideas and outputs. How can you escape "garbage in" on the project side?

When you plan a new innovation project, ensure that it is relevant, realistic and meaningful for both your organisation and key project stakeholders. Ask yourself: How to make key stakeholders rally behind this project? How to make participants feel eager to take part, and look forward to starting?

Identify the main innovation type you are pursuing (process, product, service, customer experience design, campaign design, business model or strategy innovation, among others).

The process dimension: If you use an incomplete or dysfunctional innovation process (garbage in), then it will result in incomplete or substandard ideas and results (garbage out).

Moreover, every innovation process consists of different stages and employs different thinking tools. As such, the process-related GIGO principle has a corollary on the stage level, and another on the tools level: Even the best thinking tools will produce undesired outputs if you input low-quality information. How to escape "garbage in" on the process side?

Select and use a process that is well-structured and complete, and that measures inputs and outputs on different levels (such as Thinkergy's award-winning X-IDEA method).

At the end of a stage (or a thinking-tool exercise within a stage), make sure you have outputs in sufficient quantity and of adequate quality before you move on to the next stage (tool).

The monetary dimension: If you run an innovation project on a shoestring (garbage in), your pennies will buy you only third-rate partners with faulty processes and limited experience, leading to suboptimal results.

How to escape "garbage in" on the monetary side?

Relate the budget to the relative importance of the project (high, medium, low).

Hire external professionals with effective process methods for medium- and especially high-importance. Recall David Ogilvy's advice: "Pay peanuts, get monkeys".

Ensure your budget can also pay for a functional event space and related logistics and travel costs.

Quantify the potential financial benefits of the project, such as revenue and/or profit margin growth. For example, a budget of $100,000 seems like a lot, but when viewed against expected project benefits (say, $50 million), it translates into a tiny fraction.

The time dimension: If you provide inadequate time commitments to an innovation project and each of its stages, then it will produce half-baked results. How to escape "garbage in" on the time side?

Relate the time commitment to the relative importance of the project (high, medium, low). Consider the following minimum number of workshop days for each importance level: one event day (low), two to three days (medium), and four to five days (high).

For high-importance cases, spread the project out over a couple of months. Invest time upfront for a thorough immersion during an initial Xploration phase. It will pay dividends later on, ensuring that your teams can address your real innovation challenge, which typically differs from the one you initially perceive to be your challenge.

The people dimension: The right number of the right people create great innovations to improve people's lives. If an insufficient number of, or the wrong type of people work on a project, they will produce too few or suboptimal ideas and outputs. How to escape "garbage in" on the people side?

For projects of medium or high importance, have more than one team (comprising eight to 10 members) working on the project case in parallel.

Optimise the people side: Use cognitive profiling tools (such as Thinkergy's TIPS profiling method) to invite people to each process stage who have a natural talent for the type of thinking required in that stage. To give just one example, when applying X-IDEA I noted that conceptual thinkers do well in the initial Xploration stage; creative thinkers shine in the creative stages Ideation and Development; critical thinkers help a team to get real in the Evaluation stage; and operational doers get things done in the Action stage.

For highly important projects, broaden viewpoints and the pool of ideas by inviting topic experts (scientists, futurists, trend scouts) and external collaborators (clients, suppliers, creative agency partners).

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, the Innovation Company in Asia. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation - Southeast Asia (IKI-SEA), Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at dr.d

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