Innovation Mistake: Thinking Tools Will Fix Your Problem

I had lunch a while back with two executives from an organisation that the Business School does a fair bit work with. They wanted to improve innovation and that’s what triggered our meeting.

We talked for a couple of hours about what was happening in their organisation. We talked about innovation as a process, the different forms of innovation, incremental versus radical – all the big topics. It seemed like we were making some progress towards figuring out how we might be able to work together.

Then at the very end of the lunch, the one that’s actually in charge of innovation there leaned over and said “Look, just tell me what piece of software to get and I’ll get it.”

I was dumbfounded, because it had seemed as though we were on the same wavelength. However, theirs is a common innovation mistake: thinking tools will fix your problem.

They won’t.

Tools are great, but to fix an organisational problem, you need to figure out how tools interact with people and processes. If you don’t address all three, you won’t fix your problem (see for example, this, this, this and this).


This is where The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thriveby Terri Griffith comes in.

Griffith is an expert on organisational design, and her book is very useful. She talks about how to integrate people, processes, and technologies. Her definition of a plugged-in manager is one that is able to perform this integration successfully.

The guys that I was talking with were connected, but not plugged in.

Here is how Griffith describes plugged-in managing:

… organizational success more likely occurs when all three critical dimensions – technology, organization, and human capabilities and dimensions – are taken into account concurrently. There are no silver bullets. Even excellent management actions, if restricted to a single dimension, can never have the same success as when all three dimensions are managed together. Fredrick Brooks, summarizing the issues in a classic 1986 article, notes “There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order of magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.

And here is John Hagel in the forward to the book:

In a world increasingly entranced with technology, this is a powerful antidote to the claims of technology evangelists who attribute miraculous powers to their favorite new technologies. The truth that Terri’s book drives home is that technology in isolation is useless and perhaps even dangerous. Only by integrating technology effectively into a specific social and business context can we release its latent power.

If Hagel likes the book, you probably don’t need my recommendation on top of it. Nevertheless, I will say that it is well worth reading, particularly the second half, which is filled with outstanding case studies of how to make this work. There is also a quiz to test how plugged-in you are, which you can also take online.

This interaction between technology, people and process is a big part of what I am trying to get at with the innovation matrix. Technologies usually come into the innovation process as part of an increasing commitment to innovation. This is why I was having lunch with those guys, and that is why they wanted to know which technology to use.

However, the skill at actually executing ideas comes from people and process. In order to improve innovation, you have to both increase your commitment to it, which often includes adding tools, but you also have to improve your processes and the skills of your people. You have to move up both dimensions of the innovation matrix.

Tools don’t solve innovation problems, people do. You can use the principles of plugged-in management to integrate tools, people and process more effectively. Doing this will help you avoid a common innovation mistake.

Disclaimer: I know and like Terri, and I received a free copy of the book. I also bought my own copy. I’m writing about the book because of its quality, not because of who wrote it or how I got it.

(Photo from flickr/AndyArmstrong 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.

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

15 thoughts on “Innovation Mistake: Thinking Tools Will Fix Your Problem

  1. Excellent thoughts. Again, reminds me of the selective adoption so common these days. It’s easy to focus on the tools – software, artifacts, and ceremonies – but if we don’t know why we’re using them or how they assist us in doing stuff that matters, it’s all moot.

    Unicorns are cool, but that’s not what we’re after.

  2. Great piece. Well done I believe humans focus on the fix and not the problem. In consulting we first ask the critical question ‘ whats the problem’ before applying a solution. The solution we pick is very much interdependent on the organization and processes it is to improve.

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