Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Innovation: Science or Alchemy?

Fair warning:  today's post is a philosophical debate about the direction and focus of innovation as a tool to create new products and services.   Too often we in the innovation space take for granted how different and unique the tools and processes we bring to bear are for many in corporate settings.  We also don't always understand how these tools and methods depart from the traditional, comfortable methods of many of our clients.

We stand today, 2010, at a crossroads from an innovation perspective.  Innovation is going to become either a reputable science or a disreputable side show, and there are two constituents that will direct the outcomes.  Innovation consultants and others who offer innovation services are one group that will dictate how innovation is eventually accepted and perceived, and our prospects and buyers in firms large and small are the others.  In just a short time we'll all have to agree that innovation is a science, with repeatable experiments that create real results, or innovation is alchemy, a mystical philosophical magic that promises gold but delivers lead.

Alchemists, you'll recall, were (to some extent still are) people who seek to convert base metals to gold.  They worked in secret, always on the brink of discovery of a chemical compound that would instantly create riches from the most common metals.  The problem with alchemists is that they consistently overpromised and underdelivered.  They cloaked their methods in mystical thinking and secret formulas.  They often substituted small amounts of gold that they possessed to demonstrate the ability to convert base metals, and then demanded greater and greater compensation to convert more metal into gold.

We as innovation consultants and practitioners, in partnership with our clients, need to establish clear understanding and expectation about the "art" and "science" that we propose to do.  Like alchemists, we propose to turn simple insights and ideas into winning new products, services and business models, faster and more effectively than firms have done in the past.  We employ radical tools and creative thinking in ways that are new and different from what many in corporate American have experienced, and there are many within corporate America who believe we in the innovation space are charlatans, out to make a quick buck rather than create a true innovation science.

In some cases those feelings may be correct.  When IBM runs an advertisement that shows a team lying on the floor in the dark "ideating", people may believe that seems odd and strange.  While I've been in the innovation space over six years, I've never had my clients lie on the floor in the dark.  Perhaps that is valuable, or perhaps IBM was making fun of these uncertain approaches.  But when we as practitioners introduce radically new ways of creating insights or ideas, we need to also demonstrate the value proposition and the outcomes.  Recently I saw that Imaginatik has released the ability for its clients to capture ideas using mobile devices.  This has both a positive and a negative connotation.  If we are capturing ideas on the go because people are now more mobile, then that's reasonable.  If we are promoting that technology because "you just never know when someone will have a good idea" then that suggests that innovation is unmanageable and is a black art after all, which could only contribute to the thinking that innovation is alchemy.

We need to demonstrate that innovation is a repeatable process, a science, based on useful tools and techniques and linked directly to important corporate goals and strategies.  Innovation is simply a tool to accelerate the development of valuable and useful products and services, and a method to identify emerging opportunities or threats, hopefully before they are realized.  What alchemists understood was that kings needed wealth to cement their power and project force, so they attempted to create a simple, easy way for kings and rulers to acquire gold, knowing it was a sham.  What innovators need to understand is that executives need new products, services and business models to sustain competitive advantage, and we need to demonstrate our methods are more science than alchemy. 

Our buyers need to help as well.  Rather than consider innovation a sideshow where everyone will run around wearing funny hats and talking about outlandish concepts the firm can't possibly accomplish, people within the corporation need to clearly state corporate objectives and strategies and determine which efforts can be accelerated by placing their best thinkers in a process that accelerates idea generation.  Sure, we may occasionally use mystical tools like creative thinking and idea generation, but those tools are harnessed to an important end goal and used within a repeatable innovation process.  If our buyers approach innovation as an impossible last resort to change the business, rather than a respectable business method to improve and change the business, then we and they have already failed.  An innovator cannot create interesting, useful ideas that will be implemented in a business, any more than alchemists can convert lead into gold, if the participants in the business aren't committed to the tools, don't believe change is possible and remained locked in old ways of thinking. 

To create an innovation science, two things have to change.  We, the innovation practitioners, must demonstrate the tools we use are practical and reasonable, and our methods are repeatable and deliver value.  We need to strip away any magic and demonstrate the value of the methods, tools and processes we use.  This doesn't mean that we don't on occasion use a wide variety of tools and techniques that a firm finds uncomfortable or different.  The definition of insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.  We need new ways of thinking to solve new problems, we just have to demonstrate that they work and are based on science and process.

The second thing that must change is that our buyers and business partners, the people within businesses who need innovation, must change.  They must understand that innovation isn't a black art or a side show, but a process that requires commitment, communication, cultural change and, yes, some new methods and tools.  Until innovation is viewed as a consistent, repeatable business process that happens to have some interesting tools and techniques, and not a brief interlude by a "tin hat" brigade, innovation will be viewed as more alchemy than science, and most reasonable people should be expected to reject alchemists.

As I wrote earlier, innovation as a strategic tool for growth and differentiation, stands at a crossroads.  In the next few years it will either be accepted as a reputable science and incorporated as part of any operating business model within larger corporations, or it will be regarded as an interesting sideshow, more alchemy than science, and while possibly valuable, too strange or different to be adopted consistently.  How this gets resolved is based on the results we innovators can deliver, the tools and techniques we use and the expectations and commitments of our clients to adopt the thinking and methods we recommend.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM


Anonymous Mark Turrell said...

With 12 years of innovation experience, and 18 years of collective intelligence and collaboration experience, we at Imaginatik are not likely to drop everything and become a technology idealist. There are plenty of innovation-know-nothing start-ups to go do that (crowded market space!).

Most importantly, we now as you do that innovation needs context to work - people, process, leadership - as well as the infrastructure.

Idea Central Mobile for us is a new way of extending out innovation to the field, providing a business process to the eyes and ears, and providing the tools for people in ways that are comfortable for them in the 21st century. Yes, it is a technology, but it is packaged and delivered as a service. Firms still need to ask what problems do they need addressing, by whom, whether things should be open or restricted, whether they need to incent people to use the system, etc, etc.

So, as a practioner of innovation as a science, we remain true to our scientific mission, I assure you. And ok, maybe we have some skills in the black arts too, but we'll save that for another conversation.

Mark Turrell
CEO, Imaginatik plc

12:19 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...

Hi Mark:

Thanks for your comments. I noted that Imaginatik is extending its reach to capture ideas using mobile technologies. That's great, congratulations.

My concern isn't that Imaginatik is leading people astray, or that innovation isn't possible "on the fly". I simply think that many people are moving into the space talking about many different facets of innovation - some real, some not so valuable, and some simply fads. Today I got a note about a Greenovate conference. Which is it? Innovation or Green focus? Both are important, so the logic must be that shoving them together makes them even more valuable!

I guess I'd like to strip away a lot of the hype and fad around innovation, prove out a valuable model that can be repeated, before too much of this stuff gets added in and clouds the issue.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Vincent Carbone said...


If I break it down to the raw essentials with regards to the aspect of corporate innovation that my company contributes to, Idea Management, I drew a similarity to sales leads/CRM.

Why do companies have a CRM system? Because, every company needs a system to collect, manage, priorities and execute on their new leads to drive business. Why?, because those leads could be the next million dollar new sales deal they close.

I liken a sales lead to an raw idea. In my opinion, there is even more intrinsic value inherent in an idea than a sales lead. An idea could become the next million dollar product for a company or the next million dollar cost reduction.

So, if you buy into the above, I think it is inevitable that every company, just like they have a CRM system, will have an idea management system. Even more so, the total opportunity for idea management software is even greater than CRM, because idea management software isn't silo'd in one business function. The potential value of ideas crosses everyone division, function and individual in a company, whom can all benefit for a good Idea Management system.

Long story short, regardless of if "Innovation" is a fad, the fact is that every company will implemented some kind of formal idea management software. The question in our minds is which vendors system will become the dominate. I guess you know my opinion on that one…..

Vincent Carbone
@insitevc  twitter

5:55 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...

Hi Vincent.
Thanks for your post. Welcome to the Innovate on Purpose blog.

Just wanted to point out that the post about Alchemy was focused on the fact that we need to strip away a lot of the mystique around innovation and make it a regular business process, with standard language and methods. What is happening is that innovation is becoming a fad or bandwagon, and soon everything will be "innovation" and nothing will be.

The software vendors such as Brightidea and Imaginatik are not as guilty of creating a mystique around innovation as a lot of other firms in the space, and I certainly didn't imply I thought idea management vendors do that.

Perhaps what's necessary for innovation success is that we create a set of standards that everyone agrees to, and then differentiate around the value added on top of those standards. Right now, every firm that hangs out a shingle has its own secret sauce, and I think that makes it difficult to understand the value and methods of innovation. People will tolerate this for only so long before they simply give up on innovation as a capability, or anoint innovation gurus whose teachings are the true faith.

9:00 AM  
Blogger bhc3 said...

Repeatable, sustainable - exactly right Jeffrey. I'm a big fan of establishing an innovation "governance model". A structure that reflects the specific processes and culture of a firm. My shorthand for this is, "who does what when". Here's a recent blog post on it, Avoiding Innovation Chaos inside Companies.

One thing I'll add, and this comes from my Enterprise 2.0 background. Employees, managers have a high degree of busyness. A company's best efforts on innovation can be waylaid by the daily work employees inside companies always face. Addressing these issues does take some thought. Not alchemy. Rather, an understanding of corporate goals, internal culture and human behaviors. This ain't like having people follow GAAP accounting principles, or having all sales people follow a process built into a CRM system.

Top-down innovation is "easy". Tell the employees what to execute on. Or just leave it to the R&D department, that's been the norm for decades. Of course, that misses a significant amount of innovation potential that exists inside firms.
Tapping the bottom-up, emergent innovation does take some thinking and planning.

VP Product
Spigit, Inc.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Vincent Carbone said...

I also agree about creating standards, both in the software and governance/metrics around Innovation..
On the Software Side:
If you look at any CRM software, they all look the same because a Dominant Design has emerged in that space. We are Brightidea truelly believe that we are creating that Dominate Design in the Idea Management, but obviously that is for the market to decided. Once the Dominant Design in solidified in our Innovation Software, then you are going to see much more adoption of it in corporations .
On the Consulting side:
We work with HP, who has developed a very robust "Innovation Management Framework"... I think this is also a good sign of the standardation in our industry from a governance and metric perspective. I am not saying HP has solved everything, but they are starting a huge partices area around Innovation Management, and i believe with their scales and relationship they can play a huge part of establishing innovaiton as a true business process to a large number of companies global.
From a timeline:
To timeline where i think we are at in Innovation Management.. I would combine where CRM was when it was 4 years old and where Six Sigma before it was mass adopted. Both of those areas because pretty large and accepted… ;)
The next 10-20 years should see huge growth in this area.. both from a software and services (consultants) perspective.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Vincent Carbone said...

Just another note, if you have every read the book "crossing the chasm".. and you equate the term "Innovation" to a startup, i believe "Innovation" is currently in the chasm both from a industry and within companies.

It is up to people like yourself to help bridge the gap, and focus companies on the business process of innovation. Which, if done right, can increase the potential for a company to innovate. This is the goal... "increasing the innovation potential"

9:37 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...


Glad you like the innovation management framework at HP. We at OVO helped create it!

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Vincent Carbone said...

Must be a different one Jef, this one I co-authored with them.

Would love to see the one you did as well..


5:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hello Jeffrey

I enjoyed this post and agree 100% that innovation, as a management practice, is at a crossroads. Where Vincent likened the situation to "Crossing the Chasm", I would like to add Gartner's Hype Cycle to the mix. Innovation finds itself somewhere between the "peak of inflated expectations" and the "trough of disillusionment". It may still get worse - the perception of innovation - before it get better and how much worse depends largely on the companies that are selling innovation (whether as software, service, consultancy, etc.).

I do also believe that it can be demystified and brought closer to a consistent and repeatable management practice and, maybe someday, a science.

Heinz Essmann

6:12 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...


There are a few of us working on some ideas for a more robust, open model of innovation. If you are interested, drop me a line. My email is on the blog home page.

1:01 PM  
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