What are the arts of innovation?

When I’m thinking about any subject I usually like to organise my thoughts around what the main parts of a subject are.  My day job is consulting, mostly in strategy, and as a field strategy has some order as to what it include, if you take some financial analysis, economics, and marketing, add in organisational and system dynamics you’ve got a pretty good core toolkit for a strategist. Recently Tim Kastelle had a great post on what defines innovation, and Hutch Carpenter on blogging-innovation has developed 25 definitions of innovation, but what is the core toolkit for an innovator?  I’ve studied technology and innovation management at uni, but didn’t quite feel that I learned the whole deal, and since then I’ve put a bit of brain power to what skills make an innovator and came up with the following:

  • Design thinking and creative problem solving – Design thinking is becoming super cool at the moment, and although I don’t think an MFA is going to save your company any more than an MBA was 20 years ago, understanding the concepts of design and “design thinking” are a good start for making a company more innovative and creative.
  • Social science/market research – Personally, I think that the quantitative and qualitative arts of social science, and the business focussed version – market research, provide the tools and techniques to understand important stakeholder groups and use this understanding as an important input into innovation.
  • Business modelling – Business models have emerged as one of the most important aspects of capturing innovation within organisations.  Learning the art of business modelling provides innovators with the skills to structure businesses around innovations and hopefully capture enough value (i.e. money) to keep the doors open.
  • Research and development – Whether scientific, engineering, product, or software R&D, I think that all innovators have to understand some of the fundamentals of research and development.  Although, I think that R&D management has a long way to go (i.e. “money != innovations”), there is some good ground to be made by learning the systems of research, including: peer review, knowledge management and collaboration, and the systems of new product development.
  • Project and portfolio management – This might seem a bit operational, and it is, but as almost all innovations are project based, and as all innovations are risky, unless you can afford for a company to go down due to one misfire, you’ll need a portfolio of them.  There is a huge literature on project and portfolio management out there (the PMI is a good place to start) and it’s worth looking at to provide some rigor to budgetting, resource planning, risk management and valuation of organisational innovation programs and innovation portfolios.
  • Intellectual property protection – Innovations are usually built upon a core of valuable and unique knowledge.  While you might not neccessarily need own that core to capture value, if you do, understanding the mechanisms for protecting intellectual property, both legal and non-legal (not illegal, through business models and the like) is important for ensuring the payoff on hard R&D work.

Finally, there are a few others, but  I’m unsure about how “core” they are, including:

  • Evolutionary economics – underpinning all innovation theory is Schumpeter’s evolutionary economics, although I wonder if the economist view of innovation vs the innovation studies view of innovation is developing into a similar schizm to the military and business strategy schizm we see today (although I’m sure you still see the occasional copy of Von Clauszwitz on a CEO bookshelf).
  • Social network analysis – recently trendy, and surprisingly useful for understanding innovation networks and the like, though I wonder how useful it is for the innovation practitioner.  I think the combination of SNA, system dynamics, and epidemiology would make a pretty potent innovation dynamics toolkit, although I don’t know if that’s out there at the moment.
  • Community building – This is hard to define, and while there are a number of books out there on building web communities, I don’t really know how defined it is as a discipline in it’s own right and whether it’s truly core to innovation.

There you go, of course, any fully rounded business leader should be comfortable with both strategy and innovation, as well as the essential operational and hard to define leadership skills.  But that’s my thoughts on what makes an innovator.  Any feedback?


5 Comments on “What are the arts of innovation?”

  1. Tim Kastelle says:

    Outstanding post Andrew! I think that your skills are spot-on. While I am a huge proponent of both evolutionary economics and network analysis, I’m not sure that they’re core. SNA is incredibly useful, but I think you can innovate effectively without it. As you say though, it can be potent in combination with other skills.

    However, I think that community-building is essential. It doesn’t have to be online, but building a network is a critical part of getting your ideas to spread, which is central to innovation diffusion. There isn’t a recognised methodology here yet, but I think that books like Linchpin by Seth Godin and Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken are starting to point us in the right directions.

  2. Interesting post, Andrew – in regards to your mention of SNA (Social Network Analysis) as it applies to the general concept of “Innovation”, think beyond the practitioner.

    The ‘practitioner’, by definition, is a node within a greater network, likely falling within an innovation cluster (or series of clusters that form a larger network).

    SNA allows us to form a network-aware view/visualization of who is partaking in innovation efforts. From there, we can identify how central each member is to a given function or biz unit, etc. Through the map, we may be able to instantly understand why given features and functions (or new products) are not getting from point A to point B. We often see this after M&A activity – the acquiring firm may hold steadfast to ‘how products have always been developed’, thereby leading to a natural tension in regards to innovating. Yes, it’s basic hierarchy versus matrix stuff, but extremely powerful when viewed visually.

    Another way to consider SNA (as it relates to innovation), is to have the ability to identify certain nodes/practitioners that ‘should’ be part of cross-functional innovation teams . . . by the very virtue of their network location. For example, if ‘Bob’ is highly ‘between’ Sales, Marketing, and Operations (as he has 2 contacts in Sales, 4 in Marketing, and 3 in Operations), Bob could be selected as a member of the team because there is a high probability that he understands the politics and internal dynamics of each particular group/cluster. In other words, he could be a powerful messenger/boundary spanner by virtue of his location in several sub-clusters, not to mention the fact that those with high levels of betweeness are typically more resilient to groupthink than someone who is heavily central to a given cluster.

    I’ll blog on this and reference your post here – great stuff. You and I should connect and talk on the phone!

    Josh Letourneau

    • residentakj says:

      @Josh, I agree that SNA is an excellent tool for understanding the network that underpins all organisations, and I wholeheartedly agree that any innovation practitioner is going to be a node within a greater network. But I still feel that SNA is a useful, yet not critical skill for an innovation practitioner, kind of how I feel that system dynamics is a wonderful skill for a strategist (which I’m yet to master), but you can probably survive without it. I also think that SNA is going to be a great skill for anyone in business in the future.

      Interesting stuff on you’re site btw, I’ll be watching.

  3. Great stuff on your blog as well, Andrew – I received your post through a Google Alert and spent an hour or so reading your site yesterday 🙂

    You know, I agree that for the individual practitioner (the ‘node’ in the network), taking a network-aware view/stance may not be directly beneficial to innovation efforts at a personal level.

    However, if I was a Leader tasked with forming a cross-functional innovation team (and/or asked to come in as a consultant and build one cold-turkey), I’d look at the SNA first. In that way, I’d take a network-view first (an Organizational MRI, if you will), and then emanate outboard to clusters and individuals/nodes. From there, I’d have my own ‘selections’ for the team in mind, however I’d move into contextual interviews to 1) identify the ‘why’ behind their network location (i.e. is it their role, decision-making authority, are they social butterflies?, etc.) and then, 2) ensure that these people were willing to share and participate. A super introvert might not be the best selection, so I’d look for someone mathematically ‘close’ to them.

    How most innovation teams are put together is very linear – Execs go to SBU Leaders for selections; SBU Leaders go to Directors, they go to Managers, etc. In other words, it’s the Manager asked to “loan” a resource to the team. Since they have their own agenda and KPIs’, this means they (in many cases) haphazardly select someone who isn’t that ‘important’ to getting things done in regards to meeting their KPIs’ 🙂 Hence the perpetuating loop of stagnant cross-functional innovation efforts.

    I’m also reminded that innovation, in the large majority of cases, is not fueled by a sole genius (an “isolate” on the network map) working in isolation. It’s cliche to say that 3 brains are better than 1, but the truth is that most “innovation” is a recombination of existing ideas and solutions. I’ve seen meetings where SNA-selected individuals were brought onto the team (as most high-performing innovation networks have a dense core and dynamic periphery), and within a short amount of time, wound up saying, “Oh, yes, we had that same challenge over in XYZ a few months ago – this is how we handled it.” In that way, it’s not about IQ or Genius, but about network location . . . as a Former Executive Recruiter, it’s counterintuitive to think that network location (driven by behavior) trumps human capital (i.e. talent, experience, etc.), but growing research shows that Social Capital (what’s ‘between’ individuals) is more critical than Human Capital (what’s ‘within’ an individual.)

    P.S. It’s our hope that knowledge, and new ideas (i.e. the fuel of innovation), is flowing ‘between’ the network at ideal levels . . . however, as I dive into this subject, I better back off because it begins to touch upon old culture (i.e. the Expert Knowledge Network) and the way this network naturally classes with the “undisciplined” and “whimsical” Innovation Network.

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