Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is innovation enabled by a process?

So, once again, dear readers, we plunge into the deep waters that refuse to be sated.  Many an innovation consultant, author and commentator examine the question of innovation and process.  It is a conundrum, certainly.  Can something that relies on creativity, on passion, on insight be improved by something that defines a methodology or framework?

The latest missive in this ongoing saga is by Helen Walters, a deep thinker and innovator at Doblin.  In her lastest post - Can innovation be reduced to a process - Helen seems to argue that no, innovation can't be reduced to a process, and uses design thinking as a framework to shape her discussion.  In all sincerity, I'll argue that her heart is in the right place, trying to advance the thinking around innovation, but her argument is framed incorrectly.  Innovation isn't "reduced" to anything.  It can't be boiled down, reduced to base parts and reconstructed more efficiently.  But that isn't what many of us who argue that innovation is ENABLED by processes are trying to accomplish.  Rather than atomize and try to incrementally improve all the steps within an innovation effort, thus reducing innovation to Taylorism, we are trying to argue that innovation can and should be enabled by methods and processes that people can understand, and learn.  Innovation shouldn't be reduced to a process, it should be enabled BY an underlying method or process.

This is a subtle but important distinction.  I don't think many people claim to have the definitive innovation "process".  In other words, I have yet to see any consultant state that given a few ideas and a bit of time, his or her process will definitively produce the end results a client expects.  Everyone understands that there are tools, and methods, and techniques that are appropriate for situations.  Tools like TRIZ, approaches like Open innovation, methods like "jobs to be done", all of which are situational and sustain only a small fraction of the total innovation effort.  Just as there are horses for courses, there are tools for situations.

But what inevitably gets in the way of innovation is nothing more than unfamiliarity, uncertainty, lack of definition and inertia.  People will argue that ideas are fragile.  That's simply not true.  Ideas aren't fragile, it's the people and processes that don't understand how to advance ideas that are fragile.  Without some defined methods and workflows that people can readily understand and follow, ideas stagnate and are eventually left to wither and die.  In large organizations, the only work that gets done effectively is the work that is well defined, and that people understand how to accomplish.  Most of the time, you'll discover underneath that work is a well understood formal or informal process that everyone has agreed on and follows religiously.  Yet we seem to need to argue that innovation is somehow different.  It doesn't need a process to work effectively - no, actually, process inhibits innovation!  This is simply not true.  Innovation isn't a process, but it is accelerated by agreed methods, workflows and roles.

Walters states in her post:
A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work to challenge the status quo of an industry or, at the very least, an organization. Executives are understandably looking for tidy ways to guarantee their innovation efforts -- but they'd be better off coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t any.
In fairness to Walters, she's intertwined the ideas of an innovation process with a focus on design thinking, and perhaps that is informing her perspectives.  Of course executives want methods that will speed ideas to market with less risk and less cost.  There's no denying that innovation is the new shiny object that all firms want at as little risk and cost as possible, and perhaps we consultants have been guilty of arguing that processes will bring them closer to that goal.  But let's deconstruct the first sentence of her statement.

"A codified, repeatable, reusable practice contradicts the nature of innovation, which requires difficult, uncomfortable work"  Does this mean that Dobin invents new methods and procedures for every project, or that it uses its perspectives to bring fresh eyes to new challenges, and then relies on a familiar set of tools and techniques to present concepts to its customers?  I suspect it's the latter.  I think it is difficult to "systematize" creativity and idea generation, but once ideas are generated, a process simply accelerates and enables the best ideas to rise to the top.  And even in the so-called "front end" where opportunity identification and trend spotting and idea generation happen, there are tasks and steps that can be identified, and tools and methods applied.

I particularly agreed with this statement that Walters makes: 
"Design doesn’t -- shouldn’t -- live in a bubble and designers need to bridge the divide between their world and business, not just lob ideas over the fence and hope for the best."  The same is true for innovators.  Too often businesses try to append innovation on top of, or adjacent to, existing practices and methods.  Ideas do appear to be simply lobbed over the fence.  Hope is not a strategy, or a well-defined process.  Whether we are talking about design, or a larger innovation perspective, clearly we need processes that accelerate both and INTEGRATE both, rather that simply tacking them on.

At the end of her article, Walters is talking about the misuse of design:
"For now, the real issue with design thinking is that executives run with it as they see fit, design practitioners continue to shrug their shoulders at the discussion, and corporate continues to trump creative."  However, she could just as easily be talking about innovation.  The real issue with innovation is that executives believe it is a utility, which can be switched on when demand or need is high, and switched off when demand is low.  Innovators accept this belief and try to work within these constraints, rather than demanding a consistent, continuous innovation discipline, supported by enabling processes.  Short term focus trumps long term innovation discipline, and the result is ineffective and inefficient.

Can innovation be reduced to a process?  No, but I think that's the wrong question.  The real question is:  Can innovation be improved or enabled by a process, and I think the answer to that is a resounding YES!
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:46 AM


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