The Exercise Equipment Theory of Innovation

I’ve been thinking of the issue of process versus tools, and I thought of a good analogy. Innovation management for organisations is like fitness training for people.

How many of you have ever bought a piece of exercise equipment because you thought that having the tool would make you more motivated to exercise? I have, a few times.

The fault in the logic is this: the exercise equipment doesn’t make you fit. Having a commitment to fitness and a plan for improving your own fitness is what makes you fit. Once you have the commitment and the plan, then you can get equipment if you need it. But the thing that you discover is that once you have the commitment and the plan, you don’t really need the equipment at all. It can help, but if you’re really committed to fitness, you’ll find ways to exercise whether you have the equipment or not.

Managing innovation follows exactly the same logic. Lots of people start with the tools – brainstorming, communities of practice, stage/gate, etc. But innovation tools are just like exercise equipment. Having the tool doesn’t give you the motivation to be more innovative. You have to have the commitment to innovation first, and a plan for managing the process. Innovation tools can be really useful, and once you have the commitment and the plan, then you can pick the tools that will provide the most help in meeting your goals.

But if you have the commitment and the plan, then you might not need the tools at all. That holds true both for fitness and for innovation. Make your innovation management healthier by building commitment to innovation, and a plan for managing the process.

(image from flickr/.Rouzeh under a Creative Commons License)

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

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11 thoughts on “The Exercise Equipment Theory of Innovation

  1. Hi Tim,

    Good post – I’ve thought about the same analogy too.

    This is part of the on-going debate between those who prioritise tools and those who prioritise behaviour.

    My point of view is co-evolution with tools and Mcluhan’s view on how the medium affects activity.

  2. Good point Martin – ultimately I think co-evolution is a key driver too. I should probably think that through more thoroughly to see how I can apply in this case…

  3. So true. In each case, you have three legs of the story: people/culture, process and tools. Ignoring any of the three causes a program to fail. I find this often with companies that lack any real metrics or, even if they collect metrics, they are not used to measure the effectiveness of their executive team and hold them accountable. As you say, it is like buying a pass to the gym and assuming the pounds will automatically drop.

  4. I like the tripod as well.

    Whenever I hear an over-focus on tools, I say ‘a knife is just a knife, a good chef it does not make’.

    That said, any chef worth their chef’s hat(s) will hold a prized knife (or more in his/her collection) and perhaps a signature dish or two. A documented process – a recipe, say – facilitates the spread and learning of expertise. I once heard that what differentiates a chef from a cook is the sense of innovation – notwithstanding the skills and tools that go with it.

    More on the people-process-tool thing…

    I reckon my croque-en-bouche was pretty good but it didn’t quite look right because I didn’t have the right tool: a croque-en-bouche pan. I’ve adapted a couple of recipes and enough baking skills but without the right tool, it wasn’t quite right. Without the right tool, people can make-do (which is innovation in itself) and that’s great. Sometimes, this is not good enough.

  5. I’m so going to use this every day Tim! It is default that tech tools get thrown at biz and organisational problems, no matter where I go. I see Technical designs and even working software without Functional Designs, business cases or architectural designs

    At some point a project manager even told me: “I know we don’t have any documentation nor support from the business, but I find that throwing a few programmers together usually makes things work”

    Very insightful post!

  6. Thanks Malyn – the croque-en-bouche example is an interesting one. Like we’ve sort of collectively concluded, we still need tools. The main thing I’m trying to do is to get people to move past thinking that tools are sufficient in and of themselves.

  7. Great analogy! I really like it!
    Recently I started posting interestnig analogies I found on the web on I thought it could be a good idea to create a place where people can share useful analogies such as yours.

  8. It’s so true…you really do have to be committed whether you have exercise equipment or not. However, where I live is too cold to go outside in the winter. The exercise equipment has saved my hide. (Someplace warm to exercise – inside)

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