Selecting Ideas 1: Top Tips from Paul Vanags, Oxfam

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

Many charities are very good at coming up with ideas but struggle to take any of them forward. Organisations with an innovation process in place tend to have better growth than those that don’t.  Part of any innovation process should be filtering for ideas worth taking forward.



Paul Vanags, Head of Innovation at Oxfam, explains Oxfam’s approach to selecting the best ideas.

“I am as proud of the products I haven’t launched as the ones I have” Steve Jobs, Apple

Writing a piece on this topic in less than 500 words is itself an exercise in selecting the best ideas. Here goes…

1. Classify what type of idea(s) you have

It is very common to think innovation is just “new products”. A broader definition of innovation as “doing new things or finding new ways of doing things we do already” is much better. Discount airlines innovated by ‘value analysis’*, not by launching new destinations to fly to or building new types of aeroplanes.

Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation is the ‘market leader’.

2. Put them through a filter

  • Decide how you are going to evaluate your ideas For most commercial organisations (in which I include fundraising teams in charities!), there will be a fairly core list of key areas to score your new ideas on.
  • Consumer insight Does it meet a previously unexpressed need or want?
  • Financial How big is the market (if there is one), what is the range of income you expect (put that finger firmly in the air), how profitable do you expect it to be (ie. are there large up-front or capital costs, is the market highly price competitive etc)
  • Speed to market How quickly do you think you could launch it? Are all the elements within your control, do you have to get a budget from somewhere, or perhaps the idea is dependent on an external partnership – all these things are possible, but likely to add weeks / months to your timing plan
  • Long term competitive advantage Does the idea tap into something unique that your organisation is or does? Does it have intellectual property attached which you can protect, is it patentable or trademarkable? Stick a competitor brand on it in your mind – does it still work? If so, it’s vulnerable to copycats
  • Strategy How does it fit with the tiered strategies of your organisation as a whole and then at a divisional and team level
  • Risk Aside from pure financial risk (which is always there and should be evaluated separately), does it come with other risks to your organisation e.g. health and safety, reputational risk, technological risks etc

Once you’ve got your list of criteria. Invent a scoring system (tip – don’t use linear 1 to 5s, use something more exponential e.g. 1, 3, 9, 27 – it forces better debate and ultimately more differentiation between ideas).
List your ideas out in rows. Put the criteria you’re using across the top in columns. Put scores in the resultant boxes.
You’ll find that it’s boring and repetitive and gives you a sense that you don’t have anywhere near enough data to fill out your spreadsheet, and shouldn’t innovation be fun and creative and nothing to do with spreadsheets, at least not yet? (We find it’s much more fun to do with coloured stickers on a flip-chart than it is on a spreadsheet). This isn’t a science. You’re using a ‘Delphi‘ method, albeit a fairly loose derivative of it. The main thing is to try and prevent ‘group think’ by making everyone privately score the ideas individually before revealing them to the group. It stops people copying the boss.

3. Sort the ideas in terms of scores
Don’t feel bound by your initial scores. There is value in discussion. It helps to bring out different perceptions of what the original idea was. It’s OK to amend scores retrospectively (if anyone questions this, haughtily tell them you’re using the Delphi method and they’ll usually shut up). It sometimes even generates new ideas. Be open to this.

Then all you have to do is pick the best ones and take them to the next stage of your process.  Easy!

4. Other things to consider (being at 667 words already I’ve got to be quick)

  • Research The further down the innovation pipeline an idea gets, the more it’s going to cost you. Research at an early-ish stage, particularly quantitative, mitigates the risk of pursuing dud ideas before they’ve gone too far. Even if it’s not a mass-audience, you can still ask the end ‘consumer’ what they think. If you’re really fashionable, you’ll ‘co-create’ (see Charles Leadbeater on YouTube) it with them, but that’s a whole other barrel of apples.
  • Vampire projects Tricky ones these. You’ve done everything by the book, independently and dispassionately evaluating all the ideas that the organisation has, but there’s still a few projects knocking round the business that by your reckoning really shouldn’t be there. We call them vampire projects because they suck blood (focus and resources) from your organisation and whatever you do they seem impossible to kill, rising again and again after you have seemingly left them for dead. My advice? When even garlic and wooden stakes don’t work, go with the flow, do what you can to make them better (research is sometimes useful) and mitigate the risks. Propose a trial rather than a full blown launch. And stay positive – you never know – some of the biggest innovations came about by the sheer bloody mindedness of an individual pushing their idea through. If it works, that’s great, if it doesn’t MAKE SURE YOU (the organisation) LEARN WHY.
  • Stay open to new information. After your initial filtering there’s still a long way to go to get this idea to market. You should only ‘lock down’ on an idea when you have passed the final GO / NO GO stage and you’re on your way to launch. Then, and only then, keep your blinkers firmly on – execution is everything. Before then however you might learn a new piece of information at any point that distorts or disrupts your original assumptions. Stay alert for this and respond dispassionately. Some ideas are just not meant to be. Don’t become a vampire yourself. Be furiously inquisitive about your idea, even if you’re wincing in anticipation as you turn over that previously unseen stone. Your job is to pick the best ideas, not to launch the ideas that looked like the best ones six months ago. The truth will out in the end, your job is to seek it.

Katherine William-Powlett’s blog

This entry was posted in Practical support and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Posts written by guests who have contributed to NCVO projects and events.

Comments are closed.