The Innovation Matrix: People or Tools?

I had lunch last week with some managers from a company that is trying to improve their innovation performance. They kept asking me what tools should they be using to do this? Is there software that will help, or a process, or some other tool? I had to explain that there are a lot of tools available, but that first you have to figure out your innovation strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve actually gotten this question from a few different firms over the past month, so I thought that I’d revisit a post from last year which addresses this issue, and combine it with some of our recent ideas. First, here is the post:

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.

Last week’s post on the innovation matrix helps to explain this issue. Here is the matrix again:

When people want tools, they are trying to move to the right by increasing the commitment to innovation. The problem with this approach is that commitment to innovation and innovation success aren’t directly connected. You can increase one without increasing the other (or decrease).

Thinking too much about tools is one way to end up in the bottom right square in the matrix – All Talk, No Action. This happens when you approach innovation as simply an engineering problem – “all we need to solve this is the right tool.”

Improving your innovation competence comes from getting better at managing ideas from inception through execution and on to diffusion. So the first step in getting better at innovation is not bringing in tools. The correct first step is to gain an understanding of innovation as a process. The next step is to figure out which part of the process is most in need of improvement. Only then can you choose the right tools to help you.

It might be the case that you don’t need any tools at all. But you can’t know this without thinking about your innovation process first.

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.

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9 thoughts on “The Innovation Matrix: People or Tools?

  1. Hi Tim – tools can actually make the situation worse. The installation of an innovation “system” leads the company to think they are doing something positive. In reality they will continue to ignore the main issues of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of innovation. They should focus on the “what” before the “how”.

  2. Hi Tim, the Sente quote reminds me of a favourite Picasso quote, “Aesthetics means as much to me as Entomology does to an ant.” More a fear of others perception than the tool!
    Cheers Rohan