Innovation – systematic or random genius?

Is innovation the result of a systematic process that is managed or is it the result of random genius that only a small number of people are capable of delivering?

The answer is both.

Of course we are all capable of momentary flashes of inspiration from time to time (some more than others) and these occasional sparks can lead to innovation. However, the ideas that lead to innovation are rather like apples on a tree. We can wait for one to fall by chance or we can give the tree a damn good shake and trigger a cascade of falling apples. This suggests that in part by finding effective ways to shake the tree would boost innovation. I say in part because this is only one element of a process and without consideration of the other elements we run the risk of loads of apples and not a lot else!

In a previous post (Are creativity and innovation the same thing?) I made the point that they are very different although innovation relies for its quality on the creativity that precedes it. Innovation is about successfully implementing the ‘right’ ideas and creativity is about coming up with the ideas in the first place. We therefore, also need to give consideration as to what are the ‘right’ ideas and how can we successfully implement them, two more elements of a process.

Before I go any further I must offer an apology for repeating myself again from the above mentioned post in which I touched on the purpose of innovation. In my mind, the real purpose of innovation is to:

  1. successfully implement solutions to real problems thus making the problem go away, or
  2. to implement solutions that deliver real benefits in the form of new products, services, processes etc. over and above those that have previously been realised (the greater the benefits the more dramatic the innovation).

Therefore, this should be another part of the process, i.e. clearly understanding and defining the problem and /or clearly understanding what meaningful benefits are required (it would be useful to understand the customer on this one)!

By now you are hopefully starting to see that innovation, when broken down, without doubt has identifiable stages and any stage of a process should be managed in order to maximise its effectiveness.

Whilst the following is not the definitive process of systematic innovation as this will be influenced by a number of bespoke factors unique to the situation and environment where innovation is required or desired, it will at least (I hope) illustrate that a process can be developed and therefore managed (and led) that will enable systematic innovation on demand!

An example of a systematic innovation process:

  1. Problem definition and/or identification of required or desired benefits (development of direction based upon an ideal final result)
  2. The application of systematic tools and processes to generate good ideas in relation to our direction (divergent thinking) enabled by effective individual thinking, group thinking and facilitation (shaking the tree!).
  3. The scaling down of the number of ideas through initial selection (convergent thinking)
  4. Closer scrutiny and ‘working up’ of the remaining ideas (including strengthening the strengths, eliminating the weaknesses and reducing or eliminating the costs and harms associated with the ideas)
  5. Final prioritisation and selection based on well developed criteria (aligned to stages one and two of the process)
  6. The working up of the solution (final design, prototypes, testing etc.)
  7. Implementation and delivery
  8. Review and feedback

In this example, each stage should have its own established, proven processes and tools and techniques to ensure that it is worked through as effectively and efficiently as possible to ensure that final result is ‘ideal’ and delivers innovation at its best (look out for future posts).

Organisations have two choices. They can either leave innovation to the momentary flashes of inspiration that are often restricted by the plethora of thinking suppressants that exist or they can capitalise upon proven systematic approaches that if ‘managed’ well will undoubtedly lead to breakthrough innovation.

P.S. I’m not sure contextualisation is a word but I love it anyway!


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