Get Your Process Right to Innovate Successfully

What wins in innovation, great ideas or great process?

Ideally, you’ll have both. But I suspect that if it’s either/or, process wins.

There is an interesting example from the world of chess in Michael Nielsen’s fantastic new book Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. The book discusses how our improved ability to network via the internet is changing the face of science. It’s an interesting book, and also an important one and I recommend it highly.

One of the stories that he tells is of a tournament sponsored by in 2005. It allowed humans and computers to enter together as hybrid teams. The expectation going in was that the teams put together by the dominant chess-playing computer of the time, Hydra, would win because no one could beat their computers.


However, the Hydra teams didn’t even make the quarterfinals. The best machines didn’t win. Neither did the best human players – the grandmasters. Here is how Nielsen describes the tournament:

The grandmasters could beat the Hydras because they knew when to rely on their computers, and when to rely on their own judgment. Even more interesting, the winner of the tournament was a team called ZackS that consisted of two low-ranked amateur players, using three off-the-shelf computers, and standard chess-playing software. Not only did they outclass the Hydras, they outclassed the grandmasters with their strong chess-playing computers. The human operators of ZackS demonstrated exquisite skill in using the data-driven intelligence of their computer algorithms to amplify their chess-playing ability. As one of the observers of the tournament, Garry Kasparov, later remarked, “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”

It’s an amazing story, and a counterintuitive one. We like to think that genius always wins, but it doesn’t. You need to execute as well.

It’s an important innovation lesson. Here is a quote from le Corbusier that makes the same point:

Genius is personal, decided by fate, but it expresses itself by means of system. There is no work of art without system.

(Photo from flickr/irodman 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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7 thoughts on “Get Your Process Right to Innovate Successfully

  1. Tim,
    As you’d know, QMI works with manufacturers on improving their processes. In fact, our approach requires clients to think innovatively about the roles people (and equipment) play in operations and the way it specifically applies to the business. Ask them if they’re innovating and they’d probably respond that they were just problem-solving or ‘getting the job done’. Manufacturers are great system innovators, but often not recognised as such.

  2. Hi Steve – I think that’s a great point. It’s one of the issues that I’m trying to get at with The Innovation Matrix – that some organizations can be quite good at innovating, without even realizing that they are. One of the things that I like about the QMI approach is that you tend to focus very well on process – I think that’s a real strength.

  3. Tim, I am in the middle of reading this book based on your recommendation and finding it interesting. Perhaps later in the book this is mentioned, but related to using the web to collectively problem solve – especially with non-experts, I recommend this interesting talk from Luis von Ahn called “Massive-scale online collaboration” available at

    There are some truly interesting business models to be developed in this space and the discussion in this talk is a great example of how to incentivize the masses to do something very useful for humanity- translating the web – by offering the prospect of learning a new language for free.

  4. Thanks for the link Jerad – I haven’t watched that talk yet. I agree with you about the potentially interesting business models that might be developed in this space…

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