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What’s your favorite innovation tool?

Most powerful innovation frameworkSomeone recently asked me to contribute an article on my thoughts around what the single most important development in innovation methodology was. Not to take a contrary view, but I had to tell them that there wasn’t one.

Don’t misunderstand—there are numerous innovation tools, theories and approaches that I incorporate into my practice. Open Innovation, Disruptive Innovation, Outcome Based Innovation, Customer Focused Innovation, TRIZ, Lateral Thinking…and that hardly begins to scratch the surface.

The problem with trying to choose one as the most important is that while many have widespread utility, they only make a difference if the problem they help solve is the one that is limiting your growth.

Let me explain. Innovation is a process where successful ideas move to commercial reality along a path something like this:

  1. An idea about a problem that we might be able to solve
  2. A business case and plan for developing the product or service
  3. Development of the product or service
  4. Scale-up
  5. Commercial launch
  6. Regular use in the case of internal innovation or
  7. Market acceptance in the case of external innovations

Moving an idea successfully through the process is dependent on each of the steps in the chain operating effectively, but few companies have equal capabilities in each step. That means that improving the innovation process requires strengthening the weakest length – or what Theory of Constraints calls the system constraint.

Innovation also requires dealing with another constraint. That’s the critical chain–the shortest path to complete a project. What you’ll probably find here though is that the weakest step will have a big backlog of work, so shortening the steps ahead of it won’t necessarily reduce the time to market. You may also need to take steps to reduce the backlog such as running fewer projects in parallel and limiting the entry of new projects into the development process to match the rate of completion.

The reason that understanding these constraints is so important is that innovation methodologies that address anything but more effective operation of the process constraint or shortening the critical chain simply don’t improve results. For example, who could argue with the value of training to find more unmet customer needs?

But let me show you why that might be a good argument to have. I was working with a client that was struggling to get new products through development. Their time to market had ballooned and frustrations were running high. It turned out that the real problem was that they were operating with no prioritization of opportunities. If it looked like a good idea, they worked on it. Their design engineers were juggling so many projects that few of them were making forward progress.

Can you imagine what would happened if one of the leaders there had read an article about the latest and greatest methodologies for finding opportunities and had started implementing it? Without focus and prioritization, it’s very likely that not only would the new opportunities they started have been wasted, but their project cycle time would have lengthened even further.

Look at the various innovation methodologies like prescription medications. While they might sound powerful, they only work if you have the illness they are meant to treat. Put another way, implementing them won’t result in improvements unless you are constrained in the area they address and in some cases, they might even have the unintended side effect of slowing your constraint. So the most important innovation framework might be knowing when to use a particular tool and when not to.

So what are your thoughts on this?

PS – This original article appeared in Blogging Innovsation

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Mihir Doshi September 13, 2010, 1:29 pm

    "Innovation also requires dealing with another constraint. That’s the critical chain–the shortest path to complete a project" I think there is a typo, it should be the longest path to complete the project.

    • Mike Dalton September 18, 2010, 11:38 am

      Thanks Mihir.
      I wrote it the way that I did because my focus is always finding the shortest path that will complete the critical chain, but you are correct. The critical chain is defined as the longest sequence of tasks that must be accomplished in order to complete the project.

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