Innovation: Concentrate on People and Process, not Tools

Imagine that you are a unit manager in an organisation, and your CEO comes to you and says: “We need to be more innovative – you’re in charge of making that happen.” What’s the first thing you should start thinking about?

In many cases, people in this situation go out to find tools that will help their organisation improve innovation. They set up communities of practice, or they buy a big software package designed to capture ideas, or they investigate technologies that support the innovation process. In other words, they try to figure out which tools they need to do the job.

This is wrong.

I was reminded of this when reading a post by Valeria Maltoni – Why Starting from the Tool is the Wrong Approach – which looks at the issue from a marketing perspective. She talks about a new twitter analytical tool which is designed to measure interactivity, and makes a couple of good points:

You should never start from the tool when you think about your marketing strategy using emerging technologies.

However the tool works, I can tell you one thing — don’t ever rely on data without understanding the context in which it lives. As you can see in this case, there are many more variables at work than meet the eye. Some data is qualitative and will not be captured in an easy to boil down metric, it has to be experienced to be real.

The point that she’s making is that if you’re trying to figure out how to use twitter, you need to develop a strategy and execute, rather than starting with a tool or some set of metrics and working backwards from these to figure out what your strategy will be.

It’s exactly the same with innovation. Tools are precisely that – tools, not a strategy, and not drivers of strategy. Innovations come through making new connections between ideas. These are frequently the result of interactions between people. These interactions can reveal a problem that needs to be solved, they can create a synergy that drives novel thoughts, they can lead to the innovative combination of ideas.

When you’re trying to improve innovation, the first thing to consider is people. Who should be involved in our innovation processes? Do we want to include ideas from outside our organisation? Who is connected to whom? How can we improve the connective structure of our networks? How is information flowing through our organisation?

Once you’ve thought about people, then you need to think about innovation process. Innovation is not simply coming up with novel connections between ideas – that’s just the first step in a three-stage process. In addition to generating ideas, you need a system for selecting and developing the most promising ones, and once you have them working, you need to be able to get the ideas to spread so that people adopt your innovations. The questions to ask here include: how will we generate new ideas? Will we use some kind of open innovation strategy? Can we use crowd-sourcing or innovation jams? How we will select the ideas to develop? What processes do we need to experiment cheaply to test the ideas that seem most promising? How will we develop innovative business models to help spread our new innovations? Where are we in the value network? How can effectively embed our innovation within this network?

In answering these questions, consider the overall strategy of your organisation – you’re trying to integrate innovation into this strategy. Once you’ve done this, then you can start thinking about what tools might help you achieve these strategies. There are many technologies that make innovation more effective – communities of practice, idea jams and various software and communication tools for idea development; tools like stage-gate for idea selection; simulation, rapid prototyping with computers and 3d printing for idea testing; and business model development techniques to help your ideas to spread.

But if you are going to successfully fulfill your CEO’s request, you need to think about people and processes first. Only then can you start thinking about tools.

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “Innovation: Concentrate on People and Process, not Tools

  1. Hi Tim,

    I first saw these 3 terms (People, Process, Tools) about 15 years ago when I was working as an IT Process manager. The driver, then, was process. There is logic in that. Let me explain.

    Most organisations are defined by what they do (service or product) and not so much who works for them. People are valued for what they can do (perceived, real and potential). For any given work to be done (a project or process, in other words), the organisation ‘recruits’ the people who can best do the job and make them more effective and efficient by skilling them up as well as giving them tools. In this context, (a documented) process links people and tools in the most effective way – it is the premise… in theory, anyway.

    At the time I was working with all these, we were also looking at SEI’s CMM levels. . Interestingly, innovation doesn’t factor in until at the highest level of 5 – Optimized. It makes sense from the view that you can only improve from a given premise. The premise itself must first be defined and managed. Recall my positive, negative space analogy – innovation begins when you veer of from what’s-there-now to what-can-be.

    I thought it interesting that CMM level 1 – chaotic – is characterised not so much by chaos, but really that organisations thrive on ‘heroes’ to save the day. If these people leave, organisations are potentially left hight and dry.

    ….just a food for thought….

  2. That’s interesting Malyn. I think you can make an argument that process comes first – I’m not really particular as long as tools come last!

    The only thing with the CMM is that innovation as optimization only captures one particular type of innovation – incremental improvements. I think that these are innovations, and they are often under-rated.

    I think that your positive space – negative space idea goes well beyond that though – that is the kind of thinking that is needed to come up with the more radical ideas that go out into the completely unfilled and currently undefined needs.

    But you’re right – it’s definitely food for thought!

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