Idea Frameworks: Seeing the Whole through Three Lenses

Doug Collins - Tuesday, September 08, 2015

People master practices because they expect to benefit, tangibly or intangibly, from their investment of time and attention. The same expectation applies to the practice of collaborative innovation.

The tangible benefits in this case: ideas to be pursued and leadership potential to be realized. Doors open.

Clients and I enjoy productive conversations on the former: what does it mean to put in place an idea framework to help people see the whole in terms of which ideas to pursue when? Some clients think of a set of ideas as their “innovation portfolio,” which can be usefully categorized within the context of a framework.

In my experience, a useful framework allows the practitioner to view their portfolio through three lenses: horizons of time and ambiguity; value streams; and, systemic versus discrete ideas. The first two come from the thinkers Mehrdad Baghai and Jim Womack, respectively. The last comes from dialogue with clients, over time, as we more fully explored the topic of frameworks.

First Lens: Three Horizons

Mehrdad Baghai presented the three horizons concept in his book The Alchemy of Growth. In brief he suggests that a successful organization thinks in terms of three horizons: near-term for the core business, mid-term for the emerging businesses; and, long term for the new ventures and inquiries. Organizations flounder when they focus on the first horizon, a natural tendency, to the exclusion of the second and third.

In an earlier article I showed how the practitioner could apply the three horizons concept to help move ideas from the front to the back end of innovation.

The horizons concept serves as a strong first lens for an idea framework. I find time and again that, absent the horizons view, clients look for ideas that speak to the first horizon—the “low hanging fruit,” missing opportunities with ideas that speak more strongly to the third horizon.

Second Lens: Value Streams

Jim Womack, in his book Gemba Walks, observes that every organization on the path to lean focuses on the five critical value streams that define every business: the streams tied to product development, customer experience, supply chain, production, and enterprise enablement.

These streams span multiple functional groups or departments. Aspects of each stream may be handled by external parties. I find in working with clients that thinking in terms of value streams makes a lot of sense in that it causes the organization to think in terms of value to the client, while is ultimately the source of competitive advantage. Compelling ideas, by their nature, transcend and often disrupt organizational structure.

Third Lens: Systemic Versus Discrete Ideas

 Discrete ideas are ones in which an individual, on their own, can pursue with the tools at their disposal (e.g., at a workbench).

Systemic ideas are ones in which an individual must negotiate with the owners of systems to pursue (e.g., improving upon a back office transactional system). The system owner may have other priorities or direction. Systemic ideas tend to demand more coordination and collaboration to pursue.

The third lens is useful because it suggests the sort of support the innovation requires. Setting up an in-house “garage” in an organization that must pursue systemic innovation does little good.

Putting It All Together

What do the three lenses look like, assembled together on paper? Figure 1 provides a visual.

Figure 1: visual of the idea framework based on the three lenses

The framework helps the practitioner get a good sense of how diversified their portfolio of ideas is by time, by organizational focus, and by the type of inquiry—or collaboration—the innovator will need to be able to pursue in order to succeed. As a practical tip, I find value in plotting the framework and hanging it on a wall where everyone can see.

An indicator that an organization has developed a culture of innovation is the extent to which their portfolio spans horizon, value stream, and systemic / discrete: diversity as a desirable trait.

The practitioner can explore, too, whether the greatest numbers of ideas focus on the greatest opportunities to remove waste from certain, poorly managed value streams. If, for example, the organization struggles with releasing compelling new products in a timely fashion, then the practitioner can zero in on the nature of the ideas on hand to improve matters.

Lastly, in developing a framework, the practitioner avoids the temptation of outsmarting themselves. A framework should not suggest causation or linkages where none exist. Take, for example, relative advantage: the relative advantage of an idea in horizon one is, by nature, different from the relative advantage of an idea in horizon three. Pursuing the latter may require the radical transformation or destruction of the core.

To say, “I have a lot of ideas” is neither good nor bad. The framework enables the practitioner to see how the ideas that do exist map to intent, which serves as useful foundational work for pursuing strategy. 

Paul Hobcraft commented on 14-Sep-2015 05:58 AM
Thanks a most useful article Doug, adds even more richness to the 3H

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