Evolving Models of the Process

The importance of understanding innovation as a process is that this understanding shapes the way in which we try and manage it. This has changed a great deal over time. Early models (both explicit and more important the implicit mental models whereby people managed the process) saw it as a linear sequence of functional activities. Either new opportunities arising out of research gave rise to applications and refinements which eventually found their way to the marketplace (technology push) or else the market signaled needs for something new which then drew through new solutions to the problem (need pull where necessity becomes the mother of invention).

The limitations of such an approach are clear in practice innovation is a coupling and matching process where interaction is the critical element. Sometimes the push will dominate, sometimes the pull but successful innovation requires interaction between the two. The analogy to a pair of scissors is useful here without both blades it is difficult to cut.

One of the key problems in managing innovation is that we need to make sense of a complex, uncertain and highly risky set of phenomena. Inevitably we try and simplify these through the use of mental models – often reverting to the simplest linear models to help us explore the management issues which emerge over time. Prescriptions for structuring the process along these lines abound, for example one of the most cited models for product innovation is due to Booz, Allen and Hamilton. Many variations exist on this theme – for example Robert Cooper’s works suggest a slightly extended view with gates between stages which permit management of the risks in the process. There is also a British Standard (BS 7000) which sets out a design centered model of process.

Much recent work recognizes the limits of linear models and tries to build more complexity and interaction into the frameworks. For example the Product Development Management Association (PDMA) offers a detailed guide to the process and an accompanying toolkit. Increasingly there is recognition of some of the difficulties around what is often termed the fuzzy front end where uncertainty is highest, but there is still convergence around a basic process structure as a way of focusing our attention. The balance needs to be struck between simplifications and representing of the way the process actually operates.

Most innovation is messy, involving false starts recycling between stages, dead ends, jumps out of sequence etc. Various authors have tried different metaphors –for example, seeing the process as a railway journey with the option of stopping at different stations going into sidings or even at times going backwards but most agree that there is still some sequence the basic process. In an important program of case study based research looking at widely different innovation types, Van de Ven and colleagues explored the limitations of simple models of the process. They drew attention to the complex ways in which innovations actually evolved over time and derived some important modifications to the basic model.

Shocks trigger innovations, change happens when people or organizations reach a threshold of opportunity or dissatisfaction

Ideas proliferate after starting out a single direction, the process proliferates into multiple, divergent progressions

Setbacks frequently arise, plans are over optimistic commitments escalate mistakes accumulate and vicious cycles can develop.

Restructuring of the innovating unit often occurs through external intervention personnel changes or other unexpected events.

Top management plays a key role in sponsoring – but also in criticizing and shaping – innovation.

Success criteria shift over time, differ between groups and make innovation a political process.

Innovation involves ,learning but many of its outcomes are due to other events which occur as the innovation develops making learning often superstitious in nature.

They suggest that the underlying structure can be represented by the metaphor of an innovation journey which has key phases of initiation development and implementation / termination. But the progress of any particular innovation will depend on a variety of contingent circumstances depending on which of these apply; different specific models of the process will emerge.

Excerpts from Hari Krishna and VSP