Any innovation veteran with a decent spray of gray hair has surfed a series of waves in innovation practice -- emerging methods, frameworks, and mindsets that have taken hold, opened eyes, and spawned new ways of working. Viewed up close, the leaps from design thinking to lean startup to open source to crowdsourcing seem disconnected, but at their core, each is simply an alternate means of powering human creativity. The holy grail -- transforming innovation success rates and impact -- remains mostly elusive.  

Investors will continue to wishfully gaze at the horizon, hoping the answer will soon appear. At the heart of that hope is a burning question: After embracing all these ways of unleashing creativity and not yet seeing a dramatic change in impact, what am I missing?

This all points to& the quest for something quite profound -- the new ROI: Return on Imagination. From my years on the front lines with hundreds of world-class organizations, four key points stand out as things that separate those who succeed from those who struggle.  

1. Don't fall through the trap door of thinking that being more creative means being less strategic.

It's become fashionable in the era of lean startups to hop into new opportunities, do some research, then start slinging prototypes around to see if something sticks. But the odds of success aren't much better than dropping chips on a roulette wheel. The biggest driver of Return on Imagination is the spark-inducing collision of creative vision with deep strategic and commercial rigor. Return on Imagination requires a new approach to strategy, one that combines the foundational analytics that underpin robust strategies in tandem with visionary thinking, looking at more opportunities than what can be discovered by analytics alone.

2. Aim as much creativity at the brutally hard commercial questions as you do at the fun stuff.

Anyone crazy enough to make innovation their life's playground gets juiced by the thrill of the blank page -- the chance to change lives through a breakthrough product that makes people wonder how they ever got by without it. But upping the odds of that visionary product making the leap from the Post-It note to the market requires reframing the way creativity's role across the journey is considered. A breakthrough business model requires creativity. A problem that surfaces too often is keeping creativity hidden behind the market-facing fun stuff rather than addressing the need for inventiveness across every dimension of a disruptive proposition. Innovation and design firms can no longer be content with sprinkling our magic on the fun stuff and leaving client partners to muddle through the harder questions, where massive strategic creativity is needed but rarely deployed.  

3. Become a master choreographer (a.k.a., mind the handoffs).  

Whether you're playing in corporate innovation or trying to launch unicorns, innovation inevitably has a rainbow of different forms of risk arching above it. Demand risk, economic risk, tech risk, data risk, brand risk, and organizational risk all come to mind. These risks are real and need a lot of sweat. Yet there is another risk that unravels a staggering number of innovative ideas: handoff risk. This is the threat to the project's strategic vision, timeline, budget, cohesiveness, and odds of success that change every time a new external partner or group joins the journey to market. While organizations work to strengthen their choreography of capabilities, technologies, and inputs across the journey to better manage handoffs, the value of an external partner goes through the roof if they have the breadth of capabilities to not only support choreography but to remove many of the handoffs that were necessary to navigate everything from strategy to execution.

4. Embrace a new mantra: Outcome-based design. 

In the 20-plus years since design thinking's human-centered creative approach was codified, a mountain of proof-points illustrating that people are at the center of the creative process have emerged. Lesser-known are the lessons about how often organizations nail the needs of the humans they're designing for but trip and fall on the way to market, never achieving impact at scale. 

Part of this lies in the gap between the theory of design thinking and how it is often practiced, where many lean heavily into the human desirability side but skate lightly over the thorny issues of feasibility and viability. Practitioners are often content to land on a "how might we" answer versus the real question that stands between potential and a great outcome: How will we? How will we get this thing made? How will we ready our organization to mobilize it?  

Outcome-based design is not a less human-centered approach to innovation, but one that aims creativity at all of innovation's deal breaker questions: What must be true to get this visionary idea to market and to scale, and how can we make those things happen as quickly and efficiently as possible?

Outcome-based design is harder than lingering in the comfy, accountability-free bubble of "how might we" and leaving others to figure out the hard stuff. The prize of seeing all these efforts to elevate creativity bear a lot more fruit is well worth the sweat and tears a more robust way of thinking represents.