Two Ways to Think About Innovation

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to talk about innovation inside organizations.

One way is to talk about the systems and processes that are in place to manage innovation. These include things like new product pipelines, stage gate reviews, idea management programs, online portals for open innovation and so forth. It may include elaborate research & development programs and cross-discipline innovation teams. It’s whatever innovation “infrastructure” an organization may have or create.

The other way is to talk about the personal and interpersonal behaviors, and ways of thinking that people in the organization engage in. How innovation friendly is the company’s culture? How welcome are new ideas and fresh perspectives? How open are folks to change? How willing are they to take calculated risks?

I doubt that anyone would disagree with me when I say that these are both important aspects of the innovation picture. Yet I think there’s great temptation on the part of many organizations to focus on #1 and assume that #2 will somehow follow. (As I’ve written before) I think that’s a little like believing you can make someone a musician by putting them into an orchestra. You may succeed in rare cases with some gifted individuals, but most of us need more direct and specific kinds of guidance. Even experienced innovators are wise to continue to develop that personal skill set in ways that go beyond following good innovation processes.

Isn’t that second way of talking about innovation what it’s really all about…harnessing human brain power and creativity? It comes down to finding ways to optimize human capital. How are you helping your people to become more personally innovative? How are you training and conditioning them to think and behave, and is that promoting or undermining your innovation objectives?

People in the wrong frame of mind can undermine even the most thoughtfully designed innovation processes. Folks in the right frame of mind can overcome many imperfections in those processes. Systems and processes are important in business, but they’re no substitute for enhancing the way people think.

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