Getting Pumped: Upgrading The Innovation Pipeline

The pipeline is widely accepted as a model to help manage the progress of ideas through a company and its innovation management process towards becoming solutions. The model is easy to understand but suffers from an implicit assumption that ideas will, by default, flow happily along all the way from source to destination. As all innovators know from experience, however, it actually takes hard work, sometimes an uphill battle, to get ideas through the pipeline. There are always points of friction, blockage and turbulence that cause ideas to slow down and even stop. And once an idea stops it takes even more effort to revitalize it.

The widely adopted solution for managing an innovation pipeline is the stage gate process. Unfortunately, incorporating gates into the pipeline only exacerbates the problem by creating intentional barriers to flow in addition to all the other organizational obstacles that can get in the way of innovation. Our pipelines need a design upgrade that accelerates innovation, not one that stops it in its tracks.

The good news is that physical pipelines have already solved this problem for us. Rather than building gates to stop flow, they install pumps along the way, housed in pumping stations, to maintain and even increase it:

Figure 1: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System(Source, University of Minnesota Duluth).

Figure 1: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System(Source, University of Minnesota Duluth).

“Pumping stations are positioned throughout the length of the pipeline to adjust the pressure, pump the product [crude oil and other petroleum products] along the line and monitor flow and other information about the transmittal of the product. [They] may be strategically located for their proximity to other equipment…or may be constructed to help push the product through a more difficult section of the pipeline, such as over a mountain range”

Pumps sound like exactly what we might need to ensure that our ideas flow through the pipeline. But how might we employ pumps and pumping stations for innovation?

First, let’s clarify that a pumping station in an innovation pipeline is actually a role and a set of processes, not a physical building and set of equipment. Its objective is to help projects move from conception to execution by coordinating with teams, sponsors and leadership to ensure that all ideas which continue to meet co-defined, pre-agreed conditions pass through the pipeline unimpeded.

Find places along your pipeline where ideas and projects need the most help moving along. Locate an initial pumping station at the upstream mouth (or source) of the pipeline. Bring together everyone who will be engaged more fully downstream, i.e. in prototyping, piloting, execution and post-execution support, in key upstream activities so they know what to expect later on and can identify potential issues before they arise. This creates the required starting conditions (or pressure) in the pipeline and helps to remove the friction that is created by a lack of engagement and awareness in people who will be critical to an idea’s success later on.

Identify other places in your pipeline where you have either experienced difficulties moving ideas along in the past or anticipate doing so. You will find that challenges often arise when ideas need to cross boundaries, e.g. from one team to another, one department to another, one process stage to another, and so these places can be prime locations for pumping stations, and there may be other reasons still why ideas need a pull or a push to keep them going.

Make sure you create idea and/or project filters and situate them at the pumping stations.  Filters remove unwanted or underperforming ideas and projects from the pipeline and so serve the same function as gates but without creating the loss of momentum associated with them. Filters can be set with any criteria required according to where in the pipeline they are placed. Responsibility for setting and applying filter criteria should reside with the overall pipeline manager and a multi-disciplinary executive sponsor team.

Assign a manager to each station in addition to your overall pipeline manager. The station manager’s job is to monitor the progress of the ideas in the pipeline both upstream and downstream of the station and to ensure that the desired flow is being maintained

The upstream responsibility of the manager is to attach herself to an idea while it is still some distance from reaching the station, perhaps as much as a month away. It is not the manager’s job to take over from the project team who are developing the idea but rather to guide them towards the completion of all activities required to get to the pumping station and filter and to make sure that it has the resources it needs to do so. She is not expected to ensure that the idea passes through the filter but may slow down the project in order to give it extra time and resources to meet the filter criteria and should coordinate with the filter team to align everyone around timing and expectations. Conversely she may even speed the project up if it is performing well or has moved up in priority.

The downstream responsibility of the manager – the hardest part to get right by far - is to ensure that all ideas which pass through the filter secure the resources they need in order to leave the pumping station and continue their journey downstream. She should remain attached to the idea until it is clear that forward momentum is being maintained. She may even need to send a “pig” (in oil terms, a pipeline cleaning machine) down the pipeline, well ahead of the idea itself, with detailed and clear communications to downstream stakeholders to inform them of the idea’s current status, to gain their commitment to the idea’s progress, and to clear the pipeline of all other potential friction points.

Finally, the pumping station manager needs to ensure that any diverted ideas, those ideas that do not pass successfully through the filters, are properly handled. They may need to be stripped of all resources that have clung to them but they may still have value to the organization in some other way and so need to be documented appropriately upon their final removal from the line.

While the pipeline and pumping station analogy is by no means perfect, the issue of idea flow through to implementation is central to most managers and practitioners of innovation. Any design, therefore, that prioritizes flow concepts over static ones (stages and gates, for example) is likely to be of great value to those innovators and to their organizations.