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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 and find out what innovation methods are good for and all have in common.

Setting the scene:

What if you were assigned to lead a new innovation project to develop a new product? What concrete work activities do you need to do? Please take a moment to think about this scenario.

So what innovation project-related activities have you come up with? When I give graduate students and delegates 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” … “Analyze our competitors and their products” … “Pitch our idea” … “Look at trends” … “Ship the product” … “Select the best ideas” … “Empathize 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 thought of some of the above — or something similar? If so: congratulations. You’re on track to 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?

Or put in other words: What activities do we need to perform when in an innovation project do produce what kind of outputs? To answer these questions, a few people who enjoy thinking about such things (including myself) have created different kinds of innovation methods.

What are innovation methods?

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.

What are prominent examples of innovation methods?

Going back on 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 innovation company IDEO and its academic offspring, the D-School at Stanford University); the “Idea Machine” of the Swiss innovation company Brainstorm; or Systematic Inventive Thinking created by the Israeli company of the same name, among others. Finally, X-IDEA is an up-and-coming new innovation method that I created for Thinkergy.

Why are innovation methods useful?

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 an innovation project in a largely unstructured way. Why?

Innovation projects are messy and lengthy affairs. They may last anything 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 a final innovation deliverable.

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 to the innovation efforts by specifying what do to next to produce the outputs needed in the subsequent steps.

How do innovation methods work in general?

An innovation method provides you with a systematic order of work or thinking steps: First do this, then that, then do a third thing, followed by another task, until you eventually  conclude the process. Most innovation processes propose a linear sequence of steps and associated cognitive activities / work tasks that wanna-be-innovators need to perform while working on a case.

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

To resolve this potential conflict between high accuracy and simplicity, some innovation methods aggregate three or more process 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 typically 3-5 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 form the preceding step are insufficient in quality or quality 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?

Please don’t ask me. I have a clear recommendation for you, and I admit I am biased. But after putting on a neutral thinker cap, I advise would to proceed as follows:

  1. Select an innovation method that promises to fit your situation with regards to:
    (a) how often you do innovation projects,
    (b) how sophisticated or simple you want the method to be, and
    (c) what innovation types you typically pursue.
  2. Then, experiment with different creative processes and innovation methods.
  3. Continue trying out the different innovation methods until you find the one that best suits your innovation needs and fits your people.

Would you love to learn more about the X-IDEA innovation method and our related training courses and innovation project workshops? Contact us and tell us more about your company and innovation needs.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2017. 

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