Tools Don’t Solve Problems, People Do

What do you do if the tools you use to improve your innovation process actually make it worse?

I had a meeting yesterday with one of our research partners to go over some of the results of our recent survey. The research has two parts – we are mapping the innovation and knowledge-sharing networks within the organisation, and we are also looking at how effective they are at managing the innovation process. Finally, we’re trying to figure out how these two things interact. Yesterday we were talking about their innovation process.

We surveyed about 100 people about the organisation’s effectiveness in managing the innovation value chain. The innovation value chain looks at how effective you are at generating ideas, selecting and testing ideas, and getting ideas to spread. I’ve pictured it previously like this:

In order to innovate effectively, you need to be good at all three parts of the process. Firms rarely suffer from a lack of ideas, and our partner is the same. The part of the process that they are the worst at is selecting and testing ideas. These are some of the questions on which they scored particularly poorly:

  • It takes too long to develop novel project solutions to the point where they can be used.
  • We do not have the time to develop innovative ideas for potential reuse outside of the project they were invented on.
  • We have a risk-averse attitude towards trying novel project solutions.

The irony of this situation is that they have invested a fair bit of money into a software package which has the primary purpose of helping them with exactly this step in the process.

As I discussed this with our contact, she looked at the survey results, then she said “You know, none of those things are problems that can be solved with technology.”

I thought that this was a fantastic piece of insight.

A big part of the problem here is that they invested in a tool, and the expected the tool to solve their problem. Unfortunately, the tool doesn’t create more time for people, and it doesn’t increase their innovation skills. Their tool has moved them to the right on the Innovation Matrix, but it hasn’t moved them up it:

This is why the Innovation Matrix is useful – because tools and skills are two separate things. You can increase one without affecting the other. As Jeffrey Phillips wrote in a perceptive post today, innovation is the last people-centric process:

The fact is that people play a disproportionate role in innovation when compared to any other important function. That’s because, unlike many other processes, the work can’t be divided into simple tasks that can be automated by a computer or accelerated by inanimate processes. So here’s the important question: if people play such a vital role in innovation, why do we starve innovation of the best people in the organization? If people are so vital to innovation, why do we intentionally limit the amount of time we allow for innovators to work?

There are a few key lessons in this:

  • Innovation tools and innovation skills are two separate things: people often think that they can solve their innovation problems simply by finding the right tool. This is rarely true. In general, to improve innovation you have to improve skills and capabilities. Tools can be used to facilitate this process, but they can’t do it on their own.
  • One of the biggest obstacles to innovation is lack of time: if innovation is important, people need the time and space to work on developing, testing, and spreading new ideas. If you are a manager and you want your people to be more innovative, you have to give them the time needed to do this.
  • Tools don’t solve problems, people do: this is why innovation is still people-centric. It’s more important to remove obstacles to innovation than it is to give people tools.

There’s no magic bullet here, no perfect tool. So stop looking for one. Instead, start experimenting. Find the things that work, and scale these up.

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.

14 thoughts on “Tools Don’t Solve Problems, People Do

  1. Great insights, which are in fact true. Time to think and prototype new ideas is essential. Not possible if cost efficiency is ruling and rolling people out of the process.

    The topic has been on discussion in It is always difficult to admit that overburden in an organization, especially as everything seems to run smoothly.

    “Saving” time in the process and keeping this open to do the new, will be essential for successful organizations of the future.

    Cheers from Dresden, Ralf

  2. I partly agree. Yes, there have to be change in company culture – people

    Thus, also focus on people is not solve problems.

    Based on my experience, I state that you need to:
    1. Culture (attitude, motivation, etc.)
    2. Tools (software or manual tools)
    3. Methods (ways to communicate, brainstorming, discuss, etc.)

    I have several clients that have lots of ideas. The problem is not creativity or free internal discussion.

    Their problem is pure managerial issue from strategic year planning to agile strategy. They need disciplined actions, incremental development, prototyping, quick strategic learning, etc. They really need to get new ideas to demos and prototypes and they need to be very efficient in commercialization.

    They challenge is in business model level or how to put all separate ideas together as a whole. Here tools and methods are essential, but still they need some changes in management practices and also in leadership side.

    Jukka Ala-Mutka “@jukkaam”

  3. Thanks for the comment Jukka. In my earlier posts about the Innovation Matrix I have made similar points. I agree that (in general) you need to have tools and processes to support innovation and that these need to work together with people.

    The problem that I am discussing here though is one that I run into a lot – which is that a lot of the firms that I run into have difficulties because they expect the tools to solve their innovation problems by themselves. And in my experience, this doesn’t work.

  4. Yes, I agree that we need to focus on people.

    Based on my experience, companies do “invest” on people and they give them time and tools, but not real responsibility to make the business model alive.

    Still, their resource allocation processes don’t give any flexibility to make prototypes or even testing new services as pilots. They also require the full documentation, although the test is just 10.000 dollars.

    In sum, management processes and especially resource allocation is the huge problem in many cases. We need to change also the whole management… not just leadership.

Comments are closed.