Innovating is about doing something new to produce value and this introduces substantial challenges for strategy and evaluation. Without knowing what you can expect, it’s hard to know what you have…or where you’re going.
Innovation is one of those terms that is used a lot without as much attention to what it means in specific terms. This lack of specificity might be fine for casual conversation, but the risks (and benefits) to innovation are great and require a level of detail that has a seriousness to it.
When you’re evaluating a new product or service, the risk of developing the wrong thing or leaving something out is substantial. False confidence in success could have detrimental effects on an expected return on investment. Lack of understanding of the effects of a product or service could lead to harm.
Evaluation and strategy in the context of innovation takes on new meaning because the implications are so great.
The investment in innovation requires considerable tolerance for risk, which is why many countries provide incentives to support it. In the case of many community-serving organizations, innovation is often seen as imperative given the complexity of many of our social issues.
Although Research & Development (R & D) is commonly associated with innovation, often the ‘R’ part of this work is focused on the development of the product or service, not the evaluation. Evaluation focuses our attention on the product or service as it is used, even if that is in an early, restricted setting. Evaluation provides insight into the actual use characteristics, and can be useful in supporting program design, but only if there is investment in it.
While it is difficult enough to balance all of the demands and costs associated with innovating, investing in evaluation early on can yield substantial benefits later on as have been highlighted elsewhere. However, it is precisely because many of the benefits are later in the development cycle that it is so easy to put off investing in evaluation early.
Present thinking, future investment
Innovation is principally about the future. However, as illustrated in other places, it is also about present value as a byproduct of the process of creating new goods, services, and realizing ideas. By thinking this way, program developers have the opportunity to create additional value now by integrating evaluation more fully into the present offering.
Yet it’s in the future where the biggest payoff comes. Just as you might see the glamour and glory that comes with being an innovator like the image above, that kind of success is often based on a simple set of outcomes (e.g., sales, profit, etc..). Those kind of metrics are easy to celebrate, but often disguise what the real value of something is.
Whether it’s in the form of social benefits, additional discoveries, or the role of your product or service as a catalyst for other change, the focus on the end product loses the story told along the way. By allowing evaluation into the process early, the opportunity to tell that story differently and better makes for a more interesting — and beneficial read. That is an innovation story worth writing.