focus on process, not tools

I’m reading Kill All Your Darlings by Luc Sante at the moment, which is very good. It includes a number of pieces on culture, many originally from Village Voice or the New York Review of Books. Sante is a fantastic writer and there are a number of great lines throughout the book, but one just jumped out at me in his piece on the photographer Walker Evans.

He had never been a camera snob, or even, although he was a superb printer, much concerned with the mechanics of his art (once when a student asked him what camera he had employed to take a particular shot, he became irate, declaring the question tantamount to asking a writer what sort of typewriter he’d used).

I love this little story for a number of reasons. The simplest is because I’ve never been a big fan of camera snobs, or anyone that gets too hung up on equipment. Equipment can make some things easier, but it can’t replace knowledge and experience accumulated over time.

The second reason that I like the quote though is that it illustrates a problem that we often run into in firms that are trying to implement a new innovation program. Often these initiatives come about because someone at the top has said something like “innovation has been one of our ‘core values’ for values, so we better start doing something about it.” The first thing that always happens in these cases is that the organisation goes out and gets some software. It might be something that supports message forums for Communities of Practice, or a tool for capturing ideas. The flaw in this approach is that the minute you approach Knowledge or Innovation Management as an IT problem, the initiative is dead.

Managing innovation is a people and process problem, not a technical one. Yes, it helps to have some tools to use, but if you want your organisation to be more innovative, you have to be good at generating ideas, choosing the best ones, and getting those ideas to spread (variety, selection and replication – an evolutionary process). These are people problems, and they are often network problems. Get your processes right first, then you can get some tools to help facilitate them.

If you focus on improving the innovation process, not the tool, you will be much more likely to be successful.

(photo by Walker Evans)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.