The Science and Art of Systematic Innovation

The Art of Innovation

“Creativity represents a miraculous coming together of the uninhibited energy of the child with its apparent opposite and enemy – the sense of order imposed on the disciplined adult intelligence,” noted Norman Podhoretz. Our experience gained in innovation projects done with Thinkergy suggests that systematic innovation is both a science and an art.

The science of systematic innovation

Let’s first talk about the science. The literature on problem solving, creativity and systematic innovation emphasizes the importance of following a systematic innovation process, and introduces various models such as the classic Osborn Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process. When we do an innovation project with Thinkergy, we also follow a sequential systematic innovation process that we call X-IDEA. Our proprietary X-IDEA Innovation Method was developed and fine-tuned in over 50 innovation projects over the past 8 years aiming to help businesses to systematically and reliably produce innovation results.

Our X-IDEA Innovation Method is a systematic thinking process that is universally applicable to all modern types of innovation. It delivers superb results both for innovation projects of a more strategic nature (such as strategy innovation and business model innovation), and for more operative innovation projects in areas such as product innovation, service innovation, customer experience design, solution design, or brand design. Our systematic innovation method consists of five main stages where we alternate between divergent thinking and convergent thinking strategies. Each of the fives stages is represented by one letter in the acronym X-IDEA that describe the actions to take at each stage:

  • X – Xploration: In stage X, first Xpress your initial perception of your creative challenge, which is either a perceived problem or an opportunity for your business. For example, an airline with declining sales of economy class seats could frame their initial challenge as follows: “How to improve customer satisfaction for our economy class passengers?” Next, Xpress your knowledge about the situation. List all the available facts and evidence to specify your familiar knowledge terrain. Then, Xpress what you do not yet know about the situation, thus acknowledging and marking your knowledge frontier. Thereafter, Xtract additional information to close the identified knowledge gaps, and Xplore your unfamiliar knowledge terrain to find more knowledge gaps and uncover perceptual blind spots. Here, you use powerful Xploration tools (such as power questions, perspective shifts, visualization tools like concept mapping, and reality checks) to gain novel insights on your challenge.
    Your objective behind all these efforts is to gain a deeper understanding of what really is the problem —or opportunity— you face. Only then are you ready to Xpress your deepened understanding in your final challenge statement. Experience suggests that in four out of five cases, the initial challenge statement is later reframed in a better new challenge statement. In our previous example, the Xploration might lead to the insight that satisfaction is lowest on long-haul flights. So a better way to Xpress the final challenge could be: “How to create novel experiences for economy class passengers on long-haul flights?”
  • I – Ideation: The second Stage, I, is all about generating ideas using creativity techniques. Here, you Ideate and Imagine new raw ideas for your challenge. Make an effort to generate as many raw ideas as possible in a given period of time. “The object is to spur as many ideas as possible because perhaps one in 1000 will turn out to fit,” noted Art Fry, 3M’s inventor of Post it Notes. So when we facilitate a company through an Innovation Project with Thinkergy, we make sure that a group of ten people creates roughly one thousand raw ideas in half a day of Ideation. We do this by engaging the help of classic creativity techniques (such as Brainstorming, Random Word, or Metaphors) and our self-designed Thinkergy Creativity Tools and our special facilitation methods.
  • D – Development: In the third Stage D, your first job is to Discover intriguing raw ideas within the flood of raw ideas that you’ve ideated. Then, you Develop those into meaningful and relevant ideas for your challenge by combining and improving on your raw ideas. Our special Thinkergy Development Tools such as Get Real, Yin And Yang, or Ding Dong help our clients to successfully accomplish this important job.
  • E – Evaluation: In the Stage E, we first Evaluate the developed idea concepts using Evaluation Tools such as Balance Sheet or Plus, Minus Interesting. Usually, you will find out that most really good ideas still have some drawbacks and obstacles to overcome. Therefore, apply Idea Enhancement Tools (like our Fix-the-Bugs-Lotus Blossom or Rapid Prototyping) to mitigate or eliminate all those negative aspects. Finally, Elect the most relevant, promising ideas that indicate a high idea potential and implementation feasibility.
  • A – Action: In the final Stage A, you take Action to bring your best ideas to life. Here focus first on the Act – i.e., on how to effectively sell the value and key benefits of your idea to critical supporters (such as superiors or possible financiers). Then, direct the support gained towards Activating your ideas by specifying the key implementation parameters in a project activation plan.

So much for the science. But even the most effective and systematic innovation process does not guarantee that you can produce breakthrough innovation just by applying such a scientific method. Let me explain.

The art of systematic innovation

The quality of your innovation results will depend on the quality and quantity of your thinking. Following a systematic innovation process like our X-IDEA Innovation Method raises the quality of your thinking to a certain extent, and will allow you to produce some good ideas that cater to the business challenge you face. However, note that it is not enough to simply apply a systematic innovation process (what I consider here as “the science of systematic innovation”) to arrive at great ideas. You also need to master the other side of the coin, the art of systematic innovation.

Within the framework of a systematic innovation process, three additional factors influence the quality and quantity of your results: (1) tools (analytical thinking tools and creativity tools) and related application methods (facilitation and communication), (2) the innovation type that the project focuses on, and (3) people. Let’s briefly consider these three factors.

  1. Tools (and related application methods): Every phase of the X-IDEA Innovation Method requires a different set of tools. We distinguish X-Tools such as concept mapping, creativity tools (I-Tools) for Ideation, design and development tools (D-Tools), Evaluation Tools (E-Tools) such as rapid prototyping, and finally A-Tools (Action Tools). Our Thinkergy X-IDEA Toolbox is constantly expanding, and currently contains 150 different thinking tools and creativity tools. Apart from using popular techniques such as Brainstorming, Concept Mapping, Rapid Prototyping and Observation, we also apply our own powerful Thinkergy Creativity Tools that we have originally created and successfully tested in our ideation projects. Related to the tools, you need to decide how to most effectively use each one of them: teamwork, pairing or individual application; with or without feedback/stimulus from other team members; static or rotating work stations; and so on.
  2. Innovation Types: Depending on the focus innovation type of your innovation project (e.g., product innovation, service innovation, solution design, experience design, brand design, business model innovation, strategy innovation), some thinking and creativity tools at each point of the X-IDEA Innovation Method promise to deliver better results than other.
  3. People: Depending on their cognitive preferences and preferred working styles, people enjoy different thinking tools and creativity techniques. Hence, the overall composition of the group needs to be considered when selecting the thinking tools. For example, in a group of bankers, you can expect many more rational thinkers and operational pragmatists than in a team from an ad agency, where highly imaginative thinkers and very outgoing people tend to predominate.

Managing the intersections:

Before starting a Thinkergy innovation project with a company, we spend time with our client to specify the innovation type of the innovation project and to learn more about the people involved. Then, we select the most appropriate X-IDEA thinking tools and creativity tools to deliver results at the different stages of our systematic innovation method. This seemingly simple selection and composition process is truly an art, as you have to carefully harmonize each bilateral intersection of the three factors:

  • Firstly, make sure that you invite the right people depending on the character of the innovation project. In a strategy innovation project, you need to have more senior executives and people enjoying strategic and futuristic thinking, while product innovation requires more engineers, designers and marketing staff. However, always ensure sufficient diversity in a team.
  • Secondly, the range of creativity tools differs for each and every innovation project type. A service innovation project requires a different toolkit than a strategy innovation project or a brand design project.
  • Thirdly, the personality dynamics of the team participants need to be considered when selecting the X-IDEA thinking tools and creativity tools and –in particular- their related application and communication method. E.g., if you have lots of introverts in your team, brainstorming is not likely to produce many raw ideas in the Ideation stage, so we replace it with more suitable creativity tools such as Pool Brainwriting.

When all these parts are perfectly aligned, magic is likely to happen.

There is one trick that you can do to make sure that your thinking tools and creativity tools deliver results regardless of the group: always use a lot of different techniques at each stage. For example, we prefer to use between 8 to 10 creativity tools in the creative Stage I to make sure that I get a sufficient number of original raw ideas. But this requires you to commit adequate time for an innovation project.

In general, the more time you dedicate for an innovation project, the better the results. While each stage of the X-IDEA Innovation Method is of vital importance for the overall success of an innovation project, and needs to systematically be passed through step-by-step, the time that you spend in each phase varies significantly. In particular, make sure that you spend enough time in the first stage (X – Xploration), and avoid the temptation to immediately rush to the Ideation phase. So the art here is to balance the timing of each phase to make sure that you work as comprehensive as necessary and as fast as possible. After all, time is money.