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New & Improved White Paper Archive

Date: 1/1/2015

Title: Tools Alone Do Not Cause Innovation

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Tools alone do not cause innovation:

How to build innovation in your organization



“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead

Not long ago, a prospective client called a partner at New & Improved with a request. His team had been trained in an innovation process, but for some reason, people weren’t being creative enough. So he asked for “50 new tools and techniques for creative thinking.” It makes sense, if 10 tools and techniques are good, 50 must be five times as good, right? Not quite. Let's explore why with a story:

Woodn’t you want nice furniture?

A partner took up cabinet-making recently. She loved wood and fine furniture. She recognized good carpentry when she saw it, and bad carpentry appalled her. She took time to understand how nice furniture was made, how the building up of layers of wood and moldings and tight joints could create beautiful products. So she bought a few basic tools: hammer, saw, nails, plane, sand paper, etc. and some beautiful walnut. Then she went to work. The result was an okay-looking bookshelf: nice, serviceable, sturdy, pleasant to look at. But it didn’t look nearly like what she saw in her imagination. She knew that she did the best that she could, but it wasn’t good enough to suit her standards. For the next project, she’d need more tools, right? Not quite.

Innovation, like carpentry, is a complex thing to make happen and get right. Looking at the end products of innovation — great ideas — we can generally tell where they came from (and which tools were used) and appreciate the result. It’s what’s called 20/20 hindsight. So tools are necessary, and better tools can yield better results, but knowing which tool to use when and how is as big a challenge as having the right tool. Should she work with wide boards or narrow? Should she join them with a tongue and groove, dowels, or biscuits? Use Titebond, Gorilla Glue or two-part epoxy? Should she do the final planing before the glue-up or after? Tools are one thing… experience is quite another. And what happens when she loses focus for a moment when measuring to cut? Or how many injuries have happened when carpenters went to work with the right tools and techniques but the wrong mindset?

The Personal Quest for Innovation



Most people (many of the N&I partners were guilty of this) begin their search for innovation by looking for tools and techniques for innovation, then more tools and techniques, then the right tools and techniques. As a quest for innovation, it’s a necessary path, but even if you follow it to the end of the road, you won’t be where you want to be. There is much more to it than that. There are three distinct — yet equally huge — parts of learning more about creativity and innovation:


1. Tools and techniques (the toolset)

2. Process and methodology (the skillset)

3. Attitudes and behaviors (the mindset)


Tools and techniques are things like brainstorming, question checklists, forced connections, brainwriting, attribute listing, excursions, and so many others. Tools and techniques are useful to get the brain going in different directions, or where it previously hadn’t been in, order to yield more innovative results. These are the hammers and saws of innovation, and there are literally hundreds of books that are filled with all sorts of tools and techniques that will help the trained innovator or facilitator create new ideas.

Process and methodology is the framework that helps to provide a structure for working through a challenge to create innovative results. Examples include Creative Problem Solving, Design Thinking, TRIZ, Systematic Inventive Thinking, Synectics, Six Thinking Hats, or Mind-mapping. These processes help you know when to use the tools and techniques for a desired result. When is brainstorming better than brainwriting? Where do you use attribute listing to get what you want. When do you judge or strengthen ideas? These are structures that help you know what to do when you move through your process, such as knowing that before you can solve a problem you should first determine the proper problem to solve. To build on this using the carpentry analogy, it’s knowing to use the jigsaw or scroll saw when you need to cut some curved wooden braces for your shelf.

Finally, and the most important — yet most ignored — the attitudes and behaviors for innovation. These are learned in two ways: 1) through using tools, techniques, and processes over and over and gradually discovering them, or 2) being overtly facilitated through the cycle of necessary attitudes such as the SUCCESS model. (For more information, see the Innovative Teams newsletter). These attitudes and behaviors are what make the tools, techniques, and processes actually work. It’s why some people brainstorm better than others, in spite of competent and thorough training in the technique. This is what separates a journeyman from a master cabinet-maker… the difference between a serviceable bookshelf and a beautiful piece of fine furniture. With minimal blood-letting and all fingers intact.

The Organizational Innovation Quest

What if you find yourself looking to bring about organizational innovation? It can be a gnarly process, unless your master plan includes items such as:


Follow the Map

Senior level support

Skill development for the leadership team

On-going coaching and mentoring for the key leaders

A critical mass of skilled facilitators

Common language across the organization

An ability to measure changes in innovation culture based on reliable assessments

Action plans based on the assessments and feedback


These are more than our wish-list, these are elements of successful programs that have been rolled out in organizations like Sherritt, Clorox, MDS/Nordion, Motts, and many others.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.


Our fear and frustration is that all too frequently, organizations step down the innovation initiative path with a narrow focus. They implement a half-vast effort to foster intensified creativity in their people. A few tools. A day of brainstorming. A creativity training that senior management never attends. And it gives half-vast results. Lackluster outcomes. Just another corporate flavor of the month. And now innovation has a bad name. Share that data with your share holders! But call Martha first so she can unload her holdings.

Creating a reservoir of innovation


Of course there are other things that determine the success of innovation in an organization, not the least of which is innovation leadership AND innovation management. But one of the things that shows up as critical in organization after organization is the commitment to do it, and do it right. It’s sometimes known as “giving a damn” so that innovation is more than just the “flavor of the month.” True organizational innovation requires support from the top, funding, staffing, and an enduring commitment to see it through. Changing a team or a division or an organization is like turning a battleship with a canoe paddle. It takes time, patience, a lot of strength, and perhaps some force of will.

Creating innovation in an organization — turning the battleship — is necessary. Peter Drucker, in People and Performance says, “because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two — and only these two — basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are ‘costs.’” Turning the battleship is possible. The challenge is that not everyone has the perseverance. More than half of the firms in business today will be gone 20 years from now. Some will survive because of their commitment to innovation as a strategic business imperative. What legacy do you want to leave?

Great Design


So if you want to change the path of your “battleship,” a few tools won’t do the trick, and neither will 50 of them. You’ll need the support of a process that fits your organization and a crew of people with the right attitudes to make it happen. Without those three items, your cabinetry will be shoddy, and so will your innovation effort. So make a plan. Measure twice, cut once. Stay focused so that you retain the use of your fingers. Talk with other carpenters. Stick with it, and over time you’ll be able to handle bigger and more complex projects. Soon you’ll be teaching others. Leaving a legacy. And some fine furniture.

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