Is Innovation Too Messy To Be Managed And Taught? Hardly

Having a talented team on board is crucial. But so is a process that allows them to make the most of their abilities. And good innovation consultants can tailor the method according to an organization's strengths, writes Doblin's Brian Quinn.

As an innovation consultant, I found the recent Co.Design post "Do Innovation Consultants Kill Innovation?" troubling. Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen are right to castigate much of the innovation consulting industry, which is unfortunately full of firms that have rebranded themselves as innovation experts. Just peruse the website of any large consulting firm. Yesterday’s management, brand, or operations consultant is today’s innovation guru.

The problem these consultants run into is that most of them have no ability to actually create an innovation, and so they fall back on what they really know how to do: They analyze. They promote stage gate and pipeline management, statistically normalizing these by industry to tell you just how many innovation ideas your company needs at each point to succeed. Just don’t ask them to help you actually generate or improve any of the ideas themselves. So I’m happy to also cast a stone at the "custodians" and "wordslingers" described in their piece. But what I found really troubling is the article’s core thesis: That innovation is too "messy" to professionalize, and therefore enterprises should not invest in building internal innovation capabilities. That perspective is simply uninformed and needlessly reductive.

The authors attack innovation processes, arguing that "the difference between success and disaster is largely defined by the selection of a good team—not by its processes." Of course, the team driving an innovation initiative matters, but simply throwing smart people in a room and asking them to innovate will not produce success. You might as well ask them to teach themselves the violin while they’re in there. A talented team will produce successful innovations when they’re equipped with a systematic approach that’s connected to the broader organization in the right ways. Innovation doesn’t depend on either a good team or good process. It depends on both.

The authors believe innovation "should be an attitude that organically runs through the culture of an organization." I actually have no idea what an "attitude" of innovation is, but let’s assume they’re arguing that innovation should not be a distinct function within a company but rather the responsibility of every employee. While that model of innovation can be effective—3M or Google come to mind—it’s far from the only viable one and will not work for many organizations. And even when that is the chosen model, productively engaging every employee in innovation requires a clearly defined innovation strategy (i.e., where and how our enterprise will innovate), understood roles for participants, and processes whereby workers can contribute concepts and ideas. However these organizational elements are branded internally, they are part of a "professionalized" innovation capability. Without them, the enterprise will flail about, producing lots of small ideas that never add up to anything substantive, and over time employees will disengage as their efforts fail to find traction.

The authors contend that companies should look to "the high-tech, biotech, and the movie industries" for inspiration. Really? The most recent analysis shows that the probability of FDA approval for a biotech drug is better than the pharmaceutical industry average—though hardly thrilling at 15%. In Hollywood, a screenplay is the equivalent of a chemical compound. Roughly ten of them are purchased for every movie actually produced by a studio, and every film produced isn’t profitable. It’s hard to commend an innovation model with a hit rate well below 10%.

Pixar is a rare exception. The studio’s 12 films have grossed over $7 billion and have received 39 Academy Award nominations. Pixar follows a signature development process that is highly structured, iterative, and collaborative. In other words, there is a unique "Pixar way" that obviously adds value beyond Hollywood’s typical ad hoc assemblages of talent.

I whole-heartedly agree that companies should have external networks connecting them to talented individuals and organizations. But again, firms don’t have to choose between internal capabilities and external networks—both are valuable. Procter & Gamble’s renowned Connect + Develop program is an excellent example of a company looking to solicit and integrate ideas and technology from the outside world. But as P&G’s VP of external business development, Jeff Weedman states, "We don’t look at Connect + Develop to replace our R&D department. "

The notion that innovation is too messy to professionalize is reminiscent of arguments about building marketing functions roughly 40 years ago—that it required the "golden gut" of talented individuals or other intangibles that couldn’t be taught, nurtured, or built. Today, marketing is widely acknowledged as a discipline, with clear processes, organizational structures, research tools, and talent embedded at companies such as Coke and Disney.

My colleagues at Doblin have believed in the discipline of innovation for 30 years, and we’ve watched it bear the fruit of breakthrough growth and sustainable competitive advantage time and time again. Sure, it resists reduction or easy formulas. And just as every organization is different, there is no single model for how a company should build their innovation capabilities. But we encourage business leaders everywhere to recognize innovation as a discipline, believe that reliable and repeatable methods do exist, and invest in building their own capabilities—with or without the help of consultants.

But if you do find yourself in need of innovation consultants (gasp), an important question to ask is: What innovations have they actually created? Review what they’ve been able to bring into the world. Such an examination will swiftly sort out those who merely bloviate about innovation from the handful that can actually help you do it.

[Images: Nicemonkey/Shutterstock and premasagar]

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  • Lutz Feldmann

    Recent data is showing that both - innovation capability AND innovation speed is needed to be a highly successful enterprise. I totally agree that it needs a great team AND great process AND great tools.

  • Ruste93

    I'm very interested in design/innovation and found your article fascinating. I'll be a freshman at Amherst next year and saw that you are an alum. What did you major in?

  • Brian Quinn

    Go Jeffs : ). I was a Theater major and completed the Pre-medicine requirements. Enjoy your time there, it's a great school

  • Brian Quinn

    Thanks all for kind words and your thoughts. 

    Atimoshenko, I couldn't agree more that the word innovation itself has almost become meaningless. While transformative / breakthrough / disruptive innovations generate incredible value, they're certainly not the only type--and most companies can't survive on breakthrough innovation alone. I'm writing another article to start tackling the definitional issue you describe, because it is incredibly problematic.

  • Louis Orloff

    I couldn't agree more.  Certainly there is a role for a consultant to come into a business and fill an immediate management (lack of management?) situation.  This consultant uses all of the blocking & tackling techniques.

    My challenge to clients is to find a set of new strategic positions, patterns, and products through intensive, fun, creative, managed brainstorming. And somewhat surprisingly 100% of the time we are able to help management deliver great new possibilities within their companys' reach. 

    Then comes the burden of implementation.  Back to basics!

  • Lipscombe Richard

    Innovation is defined by the outcome not the process.  Consultants who bring (and maintain) the perspective of 'the outsider' can be a real asset to any group that is prototyping new ideas.  NASA is pretty good at innovation because it excludes all those people who are locked into conventional/continuity thinking from the prototyping group. NASA has a great innovation capability because people there welcome ambiguity, uncertainty, difference, and discontinuity.  The other side of those strengths however is their inherent inability to get things done in a routine, procedural, and conventional ways.  That is why NASA lost two the Challenger and later Columbia.  I went to NASA to try to bring teamwork and processes that could foster and focus on the continuity needed to run a space transport system.  I guess I was their innovation consultant.  I tried to innovate the Shuttle Program but I failed and so did NASA.  As a consultant who gets asked to drive innovation through a settled culture of success (like NASA) I have a low success rate - but when I do succeed it is not me but the people I work with who come up with a truly remarkable outcome.  For me innovation is all about doing not theorizing.  But to guide our doing we need to know a lot about a lot about a lot of things - not just how to map out a process or how to build a collaborative team.  The problem with most innovation projects is that they are full of people 'who don't know what they don't know'. 

  • Wes Roberts

    As both a leadership mentor and organizational designer, working a majority of the time with NGOs around the globe...these thoughts travel there, as well, and the accompanying article on Pixar.  Being creative, innovative, designful, and even playful when working with world issues is crucial.  I'm further inspired...thank you, Brian.

  • Janet

    Great discussion and all vary valid points. All this helps to emphasize the complexity involved in one single word. Perhaps that is way so many consultants feel validated in using the term in their expertise. We all have a different perception of innovation based on our understanding and past experience. 

    Innovation is not just new products or services that are accepted by a group or specific target. Much focus being in hi-tech or other 'creative' industries. Innovation can also be applied to new systems, processes, delivery, marketing or financal models within any organization or industry. The possibilities are endless. It's only innovation once it's accepted and proves successful. Before that it's still in the process of being created. Though that process can have stages and procedures, it will be different each time. One must have a tolerance for the unknown. It's not an algorithm yet. It's 'messy' because it's an iterative process that is full of risks, uncertainty, vulnerabilities and humbling mistakes. These qualities and conditions are not embraced by most business models or business leaders. 

    An innovation leader must start with a vision that others can contribute to. They need to manage the ideas in order to get valuable input and collaboration. Leaders need to be transparent about their tolerance for new ideas. Innovation can span from evolutionary to revolutionary, incremental or sustainable change to radical change. To just say innovate does not provide a guideline for success or focus for change. Even in highly creative fields there is perimeters to establish success criteria. The vision of a company, the culture, the process and the people are all variables in what innovation means. 

    I agree that the word is getting overused and abused. Especially when advertisers us it as a product benefit. Consumer don't care about innovation they care if it makes their lives better in some way. (Sorry, side rant.) 

    From a consultants perspective, I wonder if the market is a time of centralization around this 'hot topic' language of business. Taking advantage of the current trends that are pushing our clients to perform better, influence others and engage more for better business results. Perhaps we all contribute to this omnipotent end in our own way. Perhaps the problem lies in a one size fits all solution. And maybe when the market is over saturated with 'innovation consultants', those innovative 'brands' will need to differentiate once again. Changing the marketing language to something that better reflects their unique area of expertise in supporting the process.

  • CGJoe

    Good ideas will remain just good ideas unless the organization has a well defined process to make them great! This requires that the organization spend some time defining its innovation strategy. It is not enough to simply include "innovation" in the organization's core values and assume it will happen. Strategy + Ideas + Process + Climate = Innovation. All elements of this framework must be in place for innovation to flourish.

  • Asit Jain

    As an ex-Innosight consultant, many a times I came across weird ideas thrown by by client team members, just to create a false impression of them being "Innovators". I sincerely believe and do support Brian's argument on the "looseness" associated with 
    now being called an Innovation Consultant. Every Tom, Dick and Harry now calls themselves the custodian of innovation. Definitely it can neither be science nor be arts but a combination of both which makes it similar to medicine. It requires a great degree of practice in terms of observational power to networking, to equip one self with the "tenets" of innovation. A mere management consultant can't survive the challenges demanded by an innovation atmosphere. If he/she luckily survives, either it's a miracle or there must be something fishy about the innovation engagement !

  • Rick Boersma

    Great piece - clear and measured - and giving credit where credit is due.  

  • Mike Rea

    Excellent piece. In pharma, we see this constantly too - the industry is atherosclerotic with management consultants who have never been outside a library, but who are selling 'innovation processes'. Unable to define it, have never created it, but charging a fortune to people who know they need some (and often don't know what it looks like themselves...)

  • atimoshenko

    IMHO, the biggest victim of the current obsession with "innovation" (and the resultant dilution of genuinely talented innovation consultants with hordes of slick snake-oil salesmen) is that we have lost sight of what we mean by "innovation". The word now seems to be used to mean "some unexpected idea that makes you admired and shocking profitable", with these ideas preferably stamped out, widget-like, on some consistent and predictable schedule.

    If "innovation" could be manufactured on an assembly line, there would be nothing special about it, and no reason to prioritise its pursuit. On the other hand, it would also be silly to claim that innovation is some mythical thing passed down on stone tablets from a mountain oracle. But before we discuss just how innovation could be systematised (and, indeed, before we have each or any conversation about innovation), we really need to be clear about what precisely we take the term to mean.