Innovation 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 recently 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 organization, 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. Recently we were talking about their innovation process.

We surveyed about 100 people about the organization’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:

Innovation Process

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:

Innovation Matrix

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 recently, 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.

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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No Comments

  1. Mitch Ditkoff on March 1, 2011 at 1:14 am

    Tim: Right on! I see this same phenomenon playing out again and again with just about all of my clients. Thanks for making the point so clearly. Here is my take on it — one that complements your very timely message:

  2. Adam Kumpf on March 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    At Teague, we’ve been experimenting with some alternatives to the brainstorming process typically used for innovation. We’ve created so many walls full of sticky notes; our problem is not a shortage of interesting ideas, but has become one of time and focus.

    Creationstorming is about making concrete decisions. Ideas are critically debated in the moment, balancing feasibility and impact with respect to the project’s timeframe and goals.

    It’s still evolving and we’d love to hear your feedback. More info about Creationstorming can be found here:

  3. David on March 5, 2011 at 11:20 am

    With the growth of knowledge workers (constitutes about 25 – 50% of the workforce in developed countries) innovation, knowledge transfer, collaboration seem more important than ever. Thank you for the article!

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