Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: Creative Strategy, a Guide for Innovation

From time to time I receive requests to read and review books about innovation.  Over the holidays I received a new book by William Duggan, entitled Creative Strategy, A Guide for Innovation.


Duggan "offers a step-by-step" guide to help individuals and organizations put [Strategic Intuition, another book by Duggan] to work for their own innovations".  Many firms offer "step-by-step" instruction guides for innovation, so I felt the book would need to offer some real insight into tools and methods.  The book jacket goes on to say other books don't describe how to "develop[ing] a creative idea for what to do".  Unfortunately Duggan joins the cadre of experts and consultants who denigrate "brainstorming", describing it as "magic".  Duggan then introduces his three step process for innovation, arguing that it follows the way the mind actually works:  breaking a problem into parts, seeking solutions in other industries or sectors for similar problems and finally, creating new combinations.

The description of the three step approach occupies the first third of the book.  Duggan then proceeds to define the different "kinds" of innovation (products, business models, entrepreneurial, social enterprise) and then to describe why brainstorming doesn't work.  The last third of the book is occupied with describing existing management metrics and philosophies, creative techniques and strategic goals, to indicate why these often fail as innovation frameworks.

On the whole, the book is a real conundrum, very specific in recommending the three step process (detailed below) and refuting or denigrating many innovation and creativity techniques, while at the same time the book can be annoyingly vague or indeterminate.  For example, when he asks the rhetorical question "how long should this {innovation} activity take?" the answer is:  it depends.  Which, while it is probably the right answer, is strange in a book that is so determined to describe his approach as the only meaningful and valuable approach.


Duggan begins by recommending a documented problem statement, which makes good sense, and he recommends keeping the statement in a draft form, since as you work through the three steps you may discover information that will lead you to change the problem statement.  Duggan's three step process is a logical approach to any management problem, not just innovation.  The three steps are:  rapid appraisal, the "what-works" scan and creative combinations.

Rapid appraisal is about breaking the problem into "chunks" or more discrete elements, often known as decomposition.  This simply makes a larger problem an association of smaller problems or challenges.  The What Works scan entails looking across industries, geography and time to see if anyone, anywhere has created a solution to any of the smaller "chunks".  If so, can we adopt or modify the solution elsewhere to the problem at hand?  The third step, creative combinations, asks us to look for creative solutions across what Duggan calls the Insight Matrix.  The Insight Matrix is a simple X-Y chart:  problem "chunks" down the vertical axis, potential solutions on the horizontal axis and interesting combinations at the intersections.

While Duggan may be the first to design his "Insight Matrix", none of these tools will be new to innovators.  The concept of breaking challenges into smaller components (known as decomposition) is well-known to innovators and one that many innovation methodologies practice.  It is often easier to break a challenge or need into smaller components and build a solution up, rather than address the entire challenge at once.  Decomposition, attribute isolation and other techniques are commonly used by innovation teams and in methods like SIT that he later downplays.

Likewise, what Duggan calls the "what-works" scan is not new either.  There is an entire school of thought within innovation that argues that every problem has already been solved, it is simply our job to discover how and where the solution exists.  Bio-mimicry, for example, stipulates that nature has already solved many problems that we encounter, and we can learn from, adapt and adopt those solutions.  In our work we constantly seek to find insights to challenges from other industries, other geographies and from nature.

Finally, Duggan's creative combination approach simply suggests that we adopt the "best" solution for each chuck from the best alternative solution from the what-works scan, and create a total solution by putting these discrete solutions back together.  Again, nothing new here.  Good innovators know that most good ideas happen at the intersection of new technologies and markets.

Overall, a reasonable combination of tools and methods and a nice package to help teams bring these three steps together - Duggan's Insight Matrix. 


Scope and Effort
There are a couple of challenges with the approach that we should consider.  First, when we scan for "what works", how will we know we are looking at the right precedents?  According to Duggan "We can't.  There is no formula for where to look."  Or, how much time should we spend?  "Ideally, we want as much time and scope as possible because it's often quite hard to figure out what works."  Duggan is honest that the "what-works scan makes explicit that creative strategy is both an art and a science".  After being so definitive about the approach, he fails to give clear guidance about the effort involved and key milestones.  Further, "How do you know when to stop the what-works scan and move on to creative combinations?  One answer might be that you run out of time".  These kind of answers make the book a confusing combination of exactitude and vagueness.

The problems with brainstorming
Once again everyone's favorite whipping boy comes in for more abuse.  Duggan argues that brainstorming is based on outdated brain science and doesn't offer new insights.  In our experience, brainstorming, like any tool or technique, can be used effectively to great results when applied appropriately and in the right conditions, or brainstorming can be an utter failure.  This fact is not indicative of a fault in the tool, but in the user and in the conditions of the use of the tool.

Gratuitous pot shots at leading experts and tools
In Chapter 11 Duggan goes on to take almost gratuitous pot shots at a wide range of creativity and innovation tools, seeking to demonstrate why Creative Strategy as he has defined it is the sole source of innovation success.  He misconstrues Ken Robinson's message about introducing more art and creativity into schools.  He describes why customer insights are unhelpful and design thinking is too narrow.  Interestingly he draws all of his insights about Design Thinking from one book - Business Model Generation - and ignores scores of other sources about design thinking.

Perhaps my favorite statement is that "divergent thinking as a first step works if you want to generate wild ideas.  But it's not the path to innovation."  I don't recall that anyone said divergent thinking is the enlightened path, only an approach to broader, more disruptive ideas.  In each case Duggan sets up reasonable, useful innovation tools or methods and pretends that the innovation community demands they be applied in totality and in isolation to all other techniques.  Everyone that I'm familiar with in the innovation world understands that innovation is about discovery and learning, and is iterative and calls for a range of innovation tools and techniques.  Many innovation consultants would suggest that divergent thinking is important, but no one would suggest that divergent thinking is the only tool or method, or that it solves an innovation challenge in totality.

No expert or technique is missed.  IDEO comes in for special focus, as does TRIZ and SIT.  Even de Bono's Six Thinking Hats is called into question, since everyone knows that the brain science it is based on is out of date - "de Bono came up with his creative method in the early 1970s, almost three decades before neuroscience revealed how learning-and-memory produces creative ideas.  It should come as no surprise to find that his methods are out of date".  Who can possibly make this claim?  Whether the "brain science" is right or wrong, in vogue or out of vogue, does that mean that Six Thinking Hats is useless?  Absolutely not.  Forcing different perspectives on a problem or opportunity is almost always valuable.


Duggan's contribution to innovation method - combining techniques like decomposition, finding existing solutions from other geographies or industries and mashing together unusual combinations - in the Insight Matrix is actually valuable.  I disagree that Creative Strategy and the Insight Matrix is the only valid innovation approach, but I do see the insight matrix as a helpful addition for innovators.

It's too bad that Duggan felt led to present his approach as the only valid approach to innovation.  Once he made that decision he had to become very definitive about other tools and methods, but he could not be definitive about much of his own recommendation.  I can't image trying to work with a client and telling them we'll be finished with a "what works" scan when we run out of time, or money.  It simply doesn't work that way.  Having established his approach as the only approach, the remainder of the book constructed and tore down a number of very thin strawmen to reinforce his points, but anyone familiar with actual innovation activity will recognize the overreach in his statements.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:09 AM


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