The Problem with Innovation

Posted on December 30, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

When I worked as a corporate training consultant I was in charge of innovation training for many years. Despite the widespread interest in the topic it rarely got any real traction at the company I worked. In other words, while most of the executives of the company mention the term “innovation” in their public pronouncements and speeches, when they’d speak in private it had very little meaning to them. They supported innovation the same way Americans are raised to support “mom, apple pie and baseball.” They are good concepts but they have very “fuzzy” boundaries. It is hard to “get your mind around” any of them with regards to WHY they are important.

Why don’t they listen?

Eventually, I became curious why these executives would continue to fund my training programs in innovation but not support the other activities that seemed critical to accomplish the results they claimed to need. They would complain that innovation wasn’t happening, yet they were often the biggest hurdles to true innovation themselves. In the language of TRIZ (one of the methodologies for innovation that I championed), they were part of an innovation dilemma, how do we get more innovation while allocating fewer resources on the subject. This article describes the problem with innovation as it relates to the disagreement over getting started.

Innovation is one of those concepts everyone already knows. Like being a backseat driver, anyone can drive better than the person at the wheel when things are going badly. Many discussions leading to disagreement often started in an attempt to define innovation. Many and varied definitions were generated and hours of productivity were lost in the debate. Ultimately, the definitions were so different because they required context for their relevance. In other words, the definition for innovation depends on what you need at the moment and what issues you are facing on a day-to-day basis.

A unique perspective

One of the advantages my training role offered over others — I served all masters, not just a single one — was the opportunity to compare and contrast the different constituents while they attempted to find a definition that addressed their particular pain. This article is the direct result of a conversation I had with a former colleague yesterday over coffee. Jack was one co-conspirators in attempting to learn and proliferate TRIZ methodologies throughout the research and development community of our former employer.

What is TRIZ?

Before I go too much further, let me describe TRIZ. The term has been around since roughly the middle of the last century. My favorite source of information on the topic is at the TRIZ Journal website. The reason many Americans don’t know about TRIZ is related to the fact it was developed during the Cold War “behind” the Iron Curtain. A patent office worker (have we heard this story before) by the name of Genrich Altschuller noticed a pattern in the applications for patents in the former Soviet Union. Over time, he developed a body of knowledge referred to as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. In Russian that translates roughly to the acronym “TRIZ” and is usually pronounced “trees.” The training in the theories required a rigorous discipline and many years of post-graduate practice. Following glasnost in the late 1980’s, several Russians began introducing this set of theories to other parts of the world. The concepts have caught on slowly in the West because they require “unlearning” some pretty deep-seated understanding before they can be usefully applied. However, the power of the techniques is well documented and irrefutable.

The Elements of Innovation

Venn diagram showing the relationship between the various elements of innovation.

Elements of Innovation

In the diagram at the left, I have characterized innovation as consisting of three primary components — creativity, problem solving and implementation. The intersection of these three components creates four additional concepts. The overlap of creativity and problem solving (A) is generally the realm of science. The overlap of problem solving and implementation (B) isĀ  the domain of engineering. The perspective of project management comes at the overlap of creativity and implementation (C). True commercial value resides at the intersection of all three elements (D). Finally, when these attributes of innovation take place within a collaborative environment, innovation is enhanced. Innovation can and does happen without collaboration, but it is usually enhanced through the collaboration of multiple experts.

When we stop trying to confine innovation to any one of these elements — and realize the act of innovating can be applied to one, all or any combination — the exact definition becomes less important than the act. Just like the proverbial blind people attempting to describe an elephant by touching distinct and unique parts of the beast — scientists, engineers and managers often have difficulty gaining consensus on a single definition. Obviously, the definition is complex and depends on its application at the moment. Therefore, I shy away from the need to have any specific definition for innovation and instead focus on how to make it happen.

In application, innovation is elusive. If you set out to be innovative, it just doesn’t happen. However, I found when I got scientists, engineers or managers focused on solving a problem the outcome was almost always innovative. When I finally got traction with innovation was when I stopped trying to teach it — or, more precisely — to offer training in innovative techniques.

Its not a destination!

In my role, I worked with many vendors. We often shared frustration with the difficulty of facilitating wide-spread adoption of innovation techniques. TRIZ might be embraced by the practitioners (like Jack), but it was rarely seen as useful by their managers. I often observed innovation happening whenever collaboration took place. TRIZ helped facilitate collaboration because it brought previously unrelated concepts to the same problem. Only when we stopped trying to teach TRIZ and started to solve problems did we make progress. In retrospect, the problem with innovation is that it is a by-product of specific actions creativity, problem solving, implementation and collaboration — often involving collaboration between related but isolated contributors — and does not happen simply through the desire to be innovative.

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6 Responses to “The Problem with Innovation”

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Hello, John & Jack: I was part of this story for about 5 years as one of the TRIZ teachers that you both worked with, and I shared your frustration at trying to get management/leadership to understand the systems and methods that the technical staff was learning. I like your Venn diagram, but I think one thing is missing; you need a problem definition mechanism, before you create/ solve/ implement. This can be a Voice of the Customer problem or a Voice of the Process problem (TRIZ, especially the ARIZ full method is good at defining the second type) but one of the main frustrations is the appleal to “be innovative” without a clear focus on what elements of the business will benefit from innovation.

More comments? From any company?

Hi Ellen,

For me, the issue of problem definition must happen before coming to a space of innovation. In this issue I like to reference Barry Johnson’s work on Polarity Management. In that approach, he distinguishes problems from polarities. Problems usually have a single best solution, TRIZ/ARIZ can help find solutions whether they are about meeting a customer need or fixing a broken machine. A polarity, on the other hand, cannot be solved. It can only be managed. Many political or organizational “problems,” especially those that swing back-and-forth like a pendulum depending on who is calling the shots, have no single right answer. They have multiple answers depending on the perspective one takes — that’s why people have such a hard time agreeing, most of us see the world differently!

Knowing whether one is facing a polarity or a problem; a customer demand or a process failure; creating something brand new or extending something with new features or functions… is an important FIRST step before launching into innovation. You have to know what you are dealing with first, right? Perhaps what this model is missing is a front-end piece — some kind of situation analysis?

Although I didn’t mention it in this article, I was surprised to discover in a protracted project at my former employer — what methodology one used to solve a problem was less important than the fact they used a methodology at all. In other words, most problem solving is done in the “dark” via random attempts, usually directed at symptoms without full (or sometimes even partial)knowledge of the real cause of the symptoms. If someone takes the time to follow a structured process — like TRIZ — they are more likely to resolve the cause of the problem because they both understand the source of the symptoms and are more likely to come up with an accurate and effective solution.

My efforts to compare one methodology against another yielded no conclusive, concrete data that one method was better than another. Perhaps this is fodder for another blog article…

I agree that the “front end” process is absolutely required, and I’m not too hung up on whether you call it part of the innovation process or not. BUT my experience is that about 50% of the time people applying the systematic front end TRIZ tools change their minds about what they need to innovate–is it the product or the business model? Is it the product or related services or the way it is explained to the customer? Even innovating the customer (find a new market…)

John – Your Venn diagram graphic looks much like those from this OSU innovator …

Computer supported collaborative learning Requiring Immersive Presence …
by NC Romano Jr – HICSS-38. Nicholas C. Romano, Jr. Department of Management Science and. Information Systems … Ramesh Sharda …

Hi Bob,
Maybe I need to be an IEEE member to see the proceedings? I can only see the abstract. At any rate, this looks like it could be a good “application” of what I’m talking about in this article. TRIZ is another potential application. It is possible that, like TRIZ, Immersive Presence could be both an application and an underlying theory. For more information about TRIZ, I recommend this reference,

I wrote this article from my experience as a “frustrated practioner.” I spent many years exposing engineers and scientists to new and “innovative” ways of thinking only to have few really change their approach. I developed an appreciation for the importance of context in helping individuals change. (Perhaps this is also fodder for another blog article.) I can imagine Immersive Presence as a potential insight to understanding that phenomenon of context. I will have to make an interlibrary loan request so I can explore further!

Thanks for the connection.

John, I’m an electrical engineer turned programmer and I find your Venn diagram to be helpful in describing the problem of innovation in software, especially user interface and architectural design. Oh, there is so much bad software out there and so much of it just tries to take a couple of tired ideas and mechanics and jam them together to make something ‘different’!

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