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I’m about to start working on an innovation project, so what’s the best model for me to use?” I get this question from students every week. Purely that question, without any context. Whenever I then ask that particular student to first tell me something about the innovation project, I usually get a vexed look. You can see the student thinking: “Just give me a damn model so I can get to work“. They want an answer to their question and they don’t need an elaborate dialogue about their project. Without that dialogue, however, every model is worthless. After all, a model is always a means to an end and never the end in itself. Without a conversation about where you want to get to, there is no point in talking about the way to get there either.”

From a duckling to an innovation model

“It’s not just students who are pleading for a ready-made innovation model to be handed over. The business world does the same thing. This is why there is hardly any management book published anymore without a hip canvas model or another type of model. The means to an end has almost become the end in itself.

We can do fine without all those innovation models. When we rely on the creativity of our brains, we can go a long way. But it is precisely this confidence that we lack. This creativity is counterproductive when it comes to the methodological robustness and thoroughness with which we do like to do things. Give each individual in a group the same six yellow and red LEGO bricks, and ask them to build a duck. Everyone will build a different duck using the same six pieces. In other words, the same input leads to a different output thanks to the creativity of our brain. Models tend to suppress that creative twist and raise the levels of methodological robustness and structured thoroughness. There’s just one major problem: exciting innovations are actually the result of creative agility, not robustness and thoroughness.”

Helping Hand

“ecause the creativity of our brains quickly causes us to jump from left to right, we tend to reach pretty quickly for a model. And models can also be very helpful. After all, they offer structure and something to get to grips with. But if we want to benefit optimally from the helping hand of that model, we first need to have a good idea of the problem that the model is intended to help us solve.

In the field of innovation, there are broadly three types of issues that models can help with. First of all, there are process models that help with the matter of how to come up with a valuable innovation in the first place. My favorite model in that area is the Design Thinking model, especially as per the connotation Tim Brown gives it. The second matter that innovation models can help with is the qualification of the innovation into different types. A commonly used model in this regard is the ‘Ten types of Innovation‘ one. Qualification helps to uncover new opportunities. The third matter where there are many models to help the innovative mind with has to do with models that deal with the adoption of the innovation by the user. One of the best known models in this area is most definitely the diffusion model by Rogers.

But as marvellous as those models are, in the end, I still come back to the dialogue. Innovation means entering into a dialogue together. It means making an inventory of all the requirements, scrutinizing the (technological) possibilities, putting out feelers and tying up the loose ends in a surprising way. If you discover from that dialogue what particular matter that you need help with in that difficult but oh-so-challenging innovation quagmire, then there is always a model to be found somewhere that can help you out of the quagmire.

Innovation depends on people

Ultimately, every innovation project depends on people. It is our creative brains that make new discoveries and figure out how to do things faster, easier or in a more satisfying way. It is not the models that do that. Innovation means entering into a conversation with each other, exploring the space outside the box together, inspiring each other with new knowledge and insights, and jointly sketching out how things can also be done differently. As much as innovation in today’s day and age is about technology, don’t forget that ultimately it is a group of people who are crafting that innovation together.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Bert Overlack, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.