Clinging to Innovation Tools

by Jeffrey Phillips

Clinging to Innovation ToolsIt’s reached the point where I’ve lost track of all the innovation tools available. It seems that every week I stumble across another innovation tool, method or technique. Much to my chagrin, since an innovation consultant should know most, if not all, of the possible permutations and combinations of tools and techniques in his chosen field.

I mean, after all, there’s TRIZ and SIT and ‘jobs to be done’ and “open” innovation and ethnography and scenario planning and.. well the list keeps going and going. Recently I found a website that lists over 40 different methods for idea generation. At some point we’ve gone well past the bandwagon stage, that stage where everyone jumps on the program with momentum, and we’ve entered the baffle them with tools stage, where everyone has a new tool, technique or approach.

What happens when any initiative or movement reaches the tools, tools, tools stage is that people who need answers begin to invest too much in any tool or technique. If it becomes apparent that Apple, for example, has been using “open” innovation, then every CEO will demand that his or her firm copy Apple and use open innovation. If it becomes apparent that your competition has leveraged ethnography and has innovated successfully, then your team will inevitably have to deploy some ethnography. The fixation with methods and tools is understandable, but it begins to cloud the issue. The real issue is that tools are merely implements to help you accelerate your strategies and tasks. What we need is a decision process to decide which tools and methods will help achieve the task, and to ensure we are choosing the “right” tool for the job.

I’ve seen clients demand to use tools simply because a competitor has successfully used the tools. What the clients fail to realize is that a lot of strategy definition, planning and consideration went into the use of the tool, and it was chosen because it was the right tool for the job for that client and their needs. All of the tools I’ve mentioned are valid and appropriate in the right context, and by speaking of context, we are getting to the heart of the problem.

Too often, individuals, teams and firms become enamored with a specific tool or method. That may be because they read about it in a new innovation book, saw a leading consultant discuss its use or know that the tool was used successfully somewhere else. What needs to happen before any firm becomes enamored of tools and methods is a careful consideration of the opportunity or problem to solve, the strategic context in which innovation is important, and an evaluation of tools and techniques that can provide value.

What’s also important is to understand the implications of the choice of an innovation tool. Ethnography, for example, is often difficult for firms to use effectively because it produces qualitative insight based on a small sample size. That means that the results must be interpreted and extrapolated, and aren’t statistically significant. Does your team understand the use of the tool they’ve fallen in love with, and what the constraints, limitations and implications are?

Tools and techniques are important to innovation, just as they are to Six Sigma or other business methods or processes. But many of these tools have specific needs and value propositions that your team must understand in order to use them effectively. What’s more important, in fact, is to frame the problem or opportunity effectively, and then select the tools in context of the problem, fully aware of both the strengths and limitations of any tools that you choose to use.

In an innovation setting, strategy and context are far more important than tools, and well-led people working within the strategy and context are more important than tools or strategy.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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  1. This is the really important point you make Jeffrey

    “What’s more important, in fact, is to frame the problem or opportunity effectively, and then select the tools in context of the problem, fully aware of both the strengths and limitations of any tools that you choose to use”

    Perfectly said, often completely ignored.

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