Monday, March 02, 2009

Teach a man to innovate, he'll create value for a lifetime

Sorry, really couldn't help it - I have that "teach a man to fish" thing running in my head. Recently I held a long conversation with a team of innovators within a university who were kicking off a project to make the MBA program more innovative. It was an interesting discussion, because like many others they had plunged headlong into the work, without defining the outcome and goals, or defining how they wanted to work. There's a really interesting subtle challenge to innovation that I tried to clarify with them, and will try to clarify for you.

Few people ever learn "how" to innovate, we are just expected to innovate based on the knowledge and skills we already possess. Teaching a person to innovate often seems difficult or disingenuous. However, until we provide the insights, methods and skills, what we are basically asking people to do is use the same old skills they've had to solve new and different problems. Hopefully that will raise your eyebrows and make you go "hmmm".

Another challenge that always crops up in an innovation program (and did with the MBA program innovation challenge) was that there were few definitions of what "innovation" meant or what the goals and outcomes were meant to be. There was a concern about "constraining" innovation if we set clear objectives or goals. This, in my opinion, is one of those issues that "everybody" knows and is 100% wrong. For true innovation success, you need to - you must - constrain innovation by providing clear goals and expectations of success and scope. Otherwise it is almost impossible to innovate successfully. Here's why.

If you ask someone to solve a problem using tools and methods they understand and are comfortable with, they may not need a lot of problem definition. They can solve a general problem using tools they understand. However, to create something entirely new, risky and disruptive using tools they aren't comfortable with given unclear goals and expectations, you can see why this is very likely to fail. Innovation is usually about creating something new or different (risky and uncertain) using tools and methods that most people have little training on or understanding. So, we've asked people to do new stuff with tools they are at best unfamiliar with. Should we also ask them to create these ideas in the absence of good scope or defined outcomes? If we don't provide clear goals and strategic objectives, we can assume that the team will define those for itself, and they'll fall back on what seems safe and reasonable. So what we'll get if we are lucky is relatively obvious answers and we'll then assume that innovation is ineffective or the tools and methods don't work. WRONG! What failed is the lack of clear objectives and the knowledge of the tools and methods.

Rather than worry about constraining innovation, teach people the tools and methods and define for them the goals and objectives of the exercise. Then they'll be able to generate really interesting and relevant ideas. To get new kinds of thinking to solve new and interesting problems, we need to leverage new tools and methods to think differently. Since the scope of possibilities is so broad, we need to provide scope to constrain that thinking, so the teams can focus their work and become effective.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:57 AM


Blogger Unknown said...

Though I'm in no way involved in teaching others to innovate, the subject is one that interests me. Recently when starting one project I ended up gathering together notes that goes some way to showing how Arthur C Clarke may have come about the idea of the communication satellite. The notes are here

Perhaps someone reading your blog can put them to use in another field - who knows?

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great post.

I think Toyota describes the innovation process problem best when it says...

“Brilliant process management is our strategy. We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competitors often get average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”

I see that Toyota's #3 slot in the recent BCG/Business Week's Innovation Champions survey was for process innovation, not product or experience innovation.

Innovation is a teachable process, not just creative serendipity. I know, because Toyota taught me their small-i innovation process, better known as Kaizen.

Graham Hill
Customer-driven Innovator

3:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your post has me thinking about the importance of learning in the innovation process.

Given clear goals and expectations (a problem to solve), and given that an innovator already has expertise (tools, processes, knowledge) it's often the case that an innovator must learn something new in order to come up with something new.


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