Understanding the inner workings of innovation methods

Understanding the inner workings of innovation methods

Have you ever wondered what an innovation process method is? And what it's good for? And how it works? Today, let's answer these questions.

Setting the scene: What if you were assigned to lead an innovation project to develop a new product? What concrete work activities would you need to do? When I give graduate students and people in innovation training courses a few minutes to think about this, typical answers that emerge include:

"Brainstorm for ideas" ... "Implement the idea" ... "Do market research" ... "Create a prototype" ... "Analyse our competitors and their products" ... "Pitch our idea" ... "Look at trends" ... "Ship the product" ... "Select the best ideas" ... "Empathise with the users" ... "Frame the innovation challenge" ... "Calculate the expected return on investment from an idea" ... "Check on project-related facts and evidence" ... "Evaluate ideas" ... and so on.

Have you thought of some of the above -- or something similar? If so, congratulations. You're on track to eventually becoming an innovator if you do such things. But here is another important question:

WHAT exactly do we need to DO and WHEN to get WHAT kind of RESULTS?

To get the answers to the above, you need different kinds of innovation methods. What are they? Innovation methods (sometimes called creative problem-solving methods or creative processes) are systematic process flows that outline the steps and cognitive activities that an individual or a team needs to follow while thinking their way through an innovation challenge, or while working on solving a problem creatively.

Going back to the work of the creativity pioneers Alex Osborne and Sid Parnes, the classic Creative Problem-Solving Model (CPS) is probably the longest-serving and best-known process method. Others include Design Thinking (created by the Palo Alto-based company IDEO and its academic offspring, the D-School at Stanford University); the "Idea Machine" of the Swiss company Brainstore; or Systematic Inventive Thinking created by the Israeli company of the same name, among others. Finally, X-IDEA is an up-and-coming method that I created for my company.

All innovation process methods are based on the belief that if you follow a systematic thinking process, you will get better ideas and results compared to when you think through a project in a largely unstructured way. Why?

Innovation projects are messy and lengthy affairs. They may last anywhere from a few days to weeks, months or even years. They often involve a smaller core team and dozens of supporters who join in for certain activities (such as idea generation). They also produce large amounts of interim outputs (for example, dozens of new insights or hundreds of raw ideas) needed to eventually arrive at an innovation that can be practically applied and delivered.

An elegant, well-designed and effective innovation process method can cut through the messiness and safely guide an individual or team towards meaningful results. It provides focus by specifying what do to next to produce the outputs needed in the subsequent steps.

How do innovation methods work? Think of a systematic order of work or thinking steps: First do this, then that, until you eventually conclude the process. Most innovation processes propose a linear sequence of steps and associated cognitive activities and tasks.

Some innovation methods are more detailed and comprehensive than others and require more steps and related work activities. But more steps also make it harder for novices to learn, and for facilitators to keep track of the correct order for doing things.

To resolve this potential conflict between high accuracy and simplicity, some methods aggregate three or more steps on a higher level of abstraction in a process stage. For example, looking through the activities listed in our "warm-up exercise", we may integrate "evaluate ideas", "prototype ideas" and "select the best ideas" in a stage that we call "evaluation".

Consequently, more thorough innovation process methods such as Design Thinking or X-IDEA consist of three to five process stages, with each stage having subordinated work steps.

Finally, many innovation process methods imply circularity on two levels:

♦On a micro level, you may have to circle back to the previous step to repeat the related work activities whenever you notice that the inputs from the preceding step are insufficient in quality or quantity to produce the desired outputs in the current step.

♦On a macro level, circularity means that once you've successfully completed an innovation project, you start a new one. Enter a new project into your innovation process method, and take step one in stage one.

Which innovation method should you adopt? Don't ask me. I have a clear recommendation but I admit I am biased. But after putting on a neutral thinker's cap, I advise you to proceed as follows: Select an innovation method that promises to fit your situation with regard to:

how often you do innovation projects,

how sophisticated or simple you want the method to be, and

what innovation types you typically pursue.

Then, experiment with different creative processes and methods until you find the one that best suits your innovation needs and fits your people.


Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (www.Thinkergy.com), the Innovation Company in Asia. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation-Southeast Asia (IKI-SEA), Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at dr.d@thinkergy.com

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