Innovation Processes

Whether incremental innovation or transformative innovation is desired, all innovation processes are cycles of study, experimentation, and implementation. While sound innovation processes encourage creativity and are predicated on the notion that a system open to trial and error must be prepared to expect error, the innovation process itself must be well thought through to avoid certain failure. Put another way, innovation in business does not thrive on pure chaos, but rather on organized chaos, thus an entity's innovation process must be holistically designed.

One of the oldest and most established approaches to an innovation model was born out of the realities of heavy industrial production and is known as the Phase-Gate Model. The model breaks innovation into a series of ordered phases, through which a project must pass in a linear and sequential order. Born in the era of heavy manufacturing, the phase-gate approach is the oldest and by far the most common innovation paradigm in the business world.

It breaks innovation into a series of sequential phases, with gates that must be cleared by a gatekeeper for that aspect of the project before a project can proceed to the next phase. The process is slow, stresses caution, and creates a stable target towards which a project heads slowly after an early design freeze. The process is time-consuming but does work well when quality, reliability, and safety are crucial.

Companies seeking more frequent innovation or more radical business innovation, product innovation, service innovation, or management innovation may also choose a different approach, such as the improvisation-driven model for innovation. This model puts in place a mental matrix governed by guidelines, and an overall roadmap for a project. This framework is anything but limiting. It allows more freedom for brainstorming, experimentation, and prototyping, and rather than require a monolithic, linear process of project development, it allows simultaneous cross-collaboration on multiple aspects of a project. Obviously the guidelines and roadmap should be clear and geared towards success, but as importantly the guidelines must be publicly defined for all departments, to avoid situations where different groups operate under conflicting assumptions.

At its most basic, a mental matrix should include clear goals, a definite beginning, middle, and end point for a project, and a rough schedule. Designers then begin a preliminary period of divergence, during which brainstorming, prototyping and experimentation are employed to the fullest extent to make sure all relevant avenues of development are considered. After this period of divergence comes a period of convergence during which consensus is achieved around the most promising set of ideas for innovation. Design-led innovation is cyclical; therefore, once an idea has been fully explored it is implemented, and then team members are encouraged to analyze and search for improvements thus the process begins anew.

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