First Steps to the Innovation Engine


Reflections on practicing discernment and ducking away from the hype express

The hyper focus on design thinking idols and listicles can inflate our expectations around innovation and how it's actually accomplished. Leaders will flirt around with a few things they've picked up from an article, but time eventually does its thing. All that torch-bearing enthusiasm fades as the reality of their constraints take hold:

Their organization is grossly unprepared to take it beyond the one-off workshop.


What's this engine?

The term innovation engine isn't foreign to practitioners. Top laureled thinkers in the media have already toyed around with the term, but if you boiled it down to its lowest common denominator, it would describe an organization's continual creative problem solving process.

Organizations possess all that crude capital – a nebulous stew of data, ideas, insight, money, time, tech, brainpower, etc. – but it all exists in a suspended state because they lack a disciplined way to bring it all together.

This isn't as straightforward as having a process, either. Everyone's got a process. Google "design thinking process," for example. The processes are freely available to try and practice and systemize. 



So what's the problem, right? 

Steve Blank believes two types of 21st century organizations will emerge: 

  1. Those who simply hold on to their current innovation for 3-5 years before another crisis hits and

  2. Those who know how to put themselves out of business every day. (footnote)

What's the latter group doing so well versus the former? The victors of Blank's bet will rely on well their innovation engine runs. This is no light undertaking. Cultivating a progressive and innovative organization is not the same as attending a design thinking bootcamp. These one-offs give you an experiential intro, but it doesn't prepare your systems, people, processes, and business models for success.

Problems in the Media

Remember the last time you dedicated yourself to a new craft? After years of intentional practice the basics become muscle memory, but it appears that every piece of fresh news, knowledge, or "discovery" can be spun to appear as if it's new. Even solid journalistic pieces end up delivering an underwhelming conclusion.

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of The Power of Habit, wrote a brilliant piece on cross-disciplinary teams. In an article titled “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” Google had launched an initiative called Project Aristotle to find out what made great high performing teams. Abeer Dubey from Google’s People Analytics Division had this to say:

We looked at 180 teams from all over the company. We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.

Google had validated what practitioners and operators in the field of applied creativity already knew: Psychologically safe environments and positive group dynamics were crucial for high-performing teams regardless of how smart or talented team members were. Personalities and expertise were not the main factors for collaborative performance. 

Some so-called discoveries are just flat out asinine. For example, the onslaught of anti-brainstorming literature whose authors prematurely infer that brainstorming is ineffective. The untrained protege might fall for weak conclusions. But dive deeper and you'll uncover the reasons for the self-inflicted misery: using only brainstorming to solve all problems; poorly prepared sessions; crappy facilitator; forgoing fact-finding and problem-finding; the utter focus on ideas rather than seeing brainstorming as a part of the greater creative process.

And you really don't have to use brainstorming: There's thousands of divergent and ideation methods. Don't like brainstorming? Modify it. Use something different.

Then there's this:

While it's clickbait-y, it's also the author's subtle but incomplete critique of current design thinking practice, albeit misdirected. There's plenty of raw material in said article – and around current design thinking meme itself – that could be unpacked and surfaced for discussion, but for now, it's just beyond the scope of this article.

On those "success" stories

Current innovation philosophies and business strategies will possess strong track records of success: Porter's Five Forces, Clayton Christensen's Disruptive Innovation, Blue Ocean Strategy, Business Model Generation, Lean Startup, and Design Thinking among many others.

Guess what? It all "works" and for various contexts. Many of these philosophies clearly intersect, and some may contradict each another. You'll be showered with stories and studies that 99% of the time are layered around glowing success.

But for every organization that succeeded, plenty have failed in the shadows.

Failures aren't savory to the masses like victories. For every win an organization accomplished using the Steve Jobs Path or the design thinking path, you can bet there were lots of quiet failures. I'm not talking about going down completely into a cartwheeling fireball of utter bankruptcy, I just mean authentic efforts which ended up as misfires and missteps, and the lessons derived from those (if any).

It's fashionable to say we talk about failure and perseverance, but the accuracy of those reasons are tough to translate because of competing biases, agendas, and fears. We sometimes even fool ourselves over the reasons. How well can a beginning athlete troubleshoot their own mistakes while battling their own subjective analyses?

Discern Aggressively

Exercise discernment. After all, asking the right question, as veteran innovation journalist Warren Berger accurately describes in "A More Beautiful Question," is an immutable essential for innovation.

To discern means to question, judge, and distinguish between truth and falsehood.It's your internal compass that helps you navigate the noisy business media outlets. It's also a skill that's honed through practitioner-ship and being an operator, not reading Fast Company or Inc all day long.


"The problem is not just rapid change – it's also the sheer volume of information rushing at us from all directions and many sources." – Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question.

Are the anecdotal quick fixes presented by major business media outlets sufficient? If it was, how much did it help? Is all innovation related to product/service/experience creation? Do we assume all innovation outcomes are tangible outcomes? 

The reality is that many business challenges now involve a fundamentally different set of tacit skills, knowledge, and competencies than those presented by product, software, or experience design. Major business media outlets are forever oriented on that spectrum of sensemaking and changemaking where "design thinking is everything and all things to everyone," insinuating the belief that those same tools and skills are sufficient enough to cross over and tackle more social and strategic problems, which absolutely contain higher levels of complexity. (footnotes below)

Junior journalists, apprentice editors, and hurried freelance writers will not have the experience or interest to make that delineation. 

Discernment once again is crucial

We forget that survivorship bias, availability bias, and "correlation not equaling causation" all come into play. 

"Standing on the shoulders of giants" which is a metaphor meaning "to discover truth by building on previous discoveries." With everyone's busy agenda and entire markets moving at the speed of social media, one may insist that they just don't have the time to explore the abundance of rigorous empirical research behind innovative organizations. Many of these unsung researchers have pioneered the way forward, but their legacies are now drowned out by the business media that now controls the conversation. Legacies from the likes of Richard Buchanan, J.P Guilford, Sid Parnes, Karl Weick, Min Basadur, Edward De Bono, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et al. have provided interconnected but foundational research.

Clues on Excellence

I get it. Everyone's busy. But it's a compromise that comes with some costs: Research that can inform and reveal new strategic direction – or chasing an endless stream of anecdotal quick fixes and forever meandering in the design thinking meme.

I'm reminded of William Durant's The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. A small but relevant tidbit of wisdom that's applicable to the existential challenges facing business leaders on where they really need to take their organizations:


"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather have these because we have acted rightly; these virtues are formed in man by doing his actions; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Smart leaders will do their own investigative work and reverse engineer the hype until they unearth innovation's immutable essentials: That innovation is not a single explosive event. It isn't about the creative lone wolf, the lone genius, a single eureka moment, or the one-off plug-and-pray workshop.

Innovation is an infinite circular process of identifying real problems to solve and then engineering the solutions. It's a constant cycle of learning, and unlearning; breaking old connections, making new connections; fusing old ideas with new ideas. 

That kind of excellence in innovation is a habit comprised of tacit skills, knowledge, and competencies shared by teams, not just by the visionary at the top. 


Just like there's no shortcut to performing like an athlete, there are no shortcuts to innovation excellence.


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Footnotes and Recommended Reading:

Adam Grant "To Be a Disrupter, You Don't Have to be an Asshole." (He has some interesting remarks on equifinality – multiple paths to the same end – and in our context, the existence of multiple paths to becoming an innovative organization, not just one)

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Peter Gardner of Startgrid's "On the Road" podcast: Steve Blank on Enterprise Innovation

David Burkus, The Myths of Creativity

Keith Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation

In Defense of Brainstorming

Richard Buchanan "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking"

Peter Jones: Design Thinking's Convergence Divergence

Bryann Alexandros