People first, Process second

I've been reading several articles lately that discuss different processes for innovation.  They typically center around a few main themes; ethnography, rapid prototyping, open innovation, and other ways to connect market insight with opportunities for new offerings.  And yet when I talk with clients who have tried similar processes, I get mixed responses regarding the results.  Most can point to isolated events that would not have occurred without the new process, but none can say that these processes have increased their ability to consistently connect opportunities for new offerings with the market they are intended to satisfy. 

I'm actually not surprised when I hear this.  Over the past few years I've come to the realization that there is a big, pink elephant in the room regarding innovation processes.  That pink elephant is the fact that some people are better at making non-linear connections between disparate disciplines than others.  Why does this typically go unsaid?  Because the perceptual skills required to make these connections are difficult to identify, define, and measure, let alone codify into a bullet-point job description.  However, everyone perceives the world differently, and better descriptions of process will not turn a linear thinker into a non-linear thinker.

Think of it this way.  No one would argue that everyone has different levels of physical ability.  I can swim, but if I was standing next to Michael Phelps, we wouldn't need to be near the water for anyone to guess who could swim faster.  That's because physical differences are observable, definable, and we can easily measure the results of the output.  Differences in perceptual skill are invisible, but that doesn't mean they aren't real.  The problem is that most organizational processes have been designed to take the human variable out of the system.  In terms of development and other day-to-day processes I think this is a good thing.  But it just doesn't work for developing breakthrough innovations that will connect with the market.

In the next few posts, I'll be reviewing best practices I've developed to identify the right types of perceptual skills for innovation, and connecting them to different disciplinary skills.  For now, start noticing how different people in your company perceive the world around them.  You may be surprised at what you see when you really start looking.