Monday, May 09, 2011

Models? We don't need no stinking models!

I was blessed with the opportunity by the good folks (Renee and Gwen) who manage Innochat each week to lead a session last Thursday (May 5, 2011) on the opportunity to create a collaborative reference framework for innovation.  There are a number of things to take away from that experience.

First, the number of people who care deeply about innovation and understand its importance is astounding.  I learned a tremendous amount from these folks.  Second, the passion that they demonstrate in 140 characters is pretty amazing as well.  Third, never assume that a word or phrase means what you think it means to others.  We had a short debate about the phrase "cottage industry", for example.  And finally, when you are working with smart, engaged people about a subject they care deeply about, be sure to define your goals and expectations clearly. 

I think I failed the Innocats on that particular issue, or perhaps we just needed to discover some basic truths along the way.  Paul Hobcraft and I have been working on a collaborative innovation reference framework for several months.  It is our belief that the lack of an innovation "standard" for lack of a better word slows the adoption of innovation and the wide range of approaches and techniques causes uncertainty and confusion.  In the Innochat we asked questions about whether or not an innovation framework or standard would add value, and if so, how it could be constructed and communicated broadly.  This is where things fell apart a bit for me.

Many people on the Innochat felt that a framework would be too restrictive, forcing people to follow a prescribed set of steps or stay within a specific set of actions.  As I thought about this later I realized that there are several "kinds" of frameworks - some frameworks or models are proscriptive, they tell you exactly what to do.  Some are based in a legal framework - they tell you what you can and can't do.  Some are interpretive - they tell you where to start and what to consider when you start.  Our goal for an innovation reference framework was the latter - a common starting point, that helps illuminate the factors a firm should take under consideration before starting an innovation effort. 

It's my experience that many firms "plunge in" to an innovation effort without fully considering the necessary starting points and influencing factors within their own organization.  Since factors like strategy, people, processes and culture often aren't taken into consideration at the start, they become barriers that are dealt with later in the project.  Our recommendation for a "framework" was to paint a picture of what should be taken into consideration at the start of a project, and offer some advice on best practices as the work unfolds, rather than to dictate exactly which actions or steps should be taken in each phase of any innovation effort.

It's interesting to note that most industries that are highly profitable have accepted standards.  Most PCs operate on the standard of the IBM PC, and while the PC itself is commoditized, there are plenty of firms that make a good living adding value to the standard.  One area of discussion in our Innochat was GAAP.  Clearly accounting principles are proscriptive and legal, they form relatively definitive barriers to what a firm can or should do.  However, plenty of large accounting firms make good money helping firms work within that framework and further, interpret the framework.  Clearly an innovation framework would not be nearly so proscriptive or definitive, leaving plenty of room for interpretation while offering guidance.

So what's left for the new corporate innovator?  Narrowly tailored tools and techniques developed and supported by firms that have a vested interest in the model or method, or trying to develop an innovation method or framework on their own.  The first demands too much faith in models that may or may not scale or be applicable to their needs, and the second is simply asking every firm to reinvent a wheel that many of us know how to build.  In the absence of a "standard" every solution seems equally reasonable, and therefore none are.

I think in the end we circled back to the starting point.  People seemed to agree that a loosely defined, flexible framework that defined a common starting point made sense.  Clearly there are those who stand to lose if a common reference model unfolds, as there are many competing methods and techniques and most of those are shrouded in mystery, managed only by the small group of experts that surround the specific method or technique.  Further, there are a range of innovation approaches - Open, Needs-Based, Business Model, etc - that offer very different outcomes and different deployments of innovative ideas.  These approaches need to be defined in the context of the innovation effort, which again recommends a common starting point that illuminates the work that needs to be done.  Note the word illuminate, not the word dictate.

So, models.  Perhaps we don't need any stinking definitive innovation models, but we all agree a common starting point, that offers guidance and is interpretive based on the situation and the need, which informs the innovation teams and their work, will be helpful.  If you think so, please join us on our wiki to help make that a reality.  If you think we are wildly off-base with our goal, or merely Quixotic, you can feel free to let us know that too.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:54 AM


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