Is Innovation a “Business Process”?

I just returned from giving a keynote talk at the Business Process Management Conference. Business Process Management, or “BPM” for short, emerged in the early 1990s as a trend best exemplified by the 1993 book Reengineering the Corporation by Michael Hammer and James Champy. The basic idea sounds like common sense to me: instead of focusing on the structure of your organization–the divisional lines and functional areas–focus on the core processes that create and deliver value (like the order process, supply-chain management). Although “conventional wisdom” has it that BPM was a short-lived fad, in fact the core of the message lives on in widely used management techniques, including six-sigma, and information technology management tools such as ITIL and COBIT.

I worried over my keynote presentation. After all, is innovation a “process”? I think so, and in fact my talk’s title was “the innovation process”. All businesses manage processes of incremental innovation (six sigma might even fall in that category) and new product development (with stage gate approaches). But I don’t think breakthrough innovation can be managed like other business processes. It’s more of an anti-process. By that, I mean breakthrough innovation is not linear; it doesn’t have identifiable stages; the participants and organizational units are unclear. As I say in my book Group Genius, breakthrough innovation is improvisational–it emerges, unpredictably, from a long series of small sparks of ideas. No single one of those ideas determines the final form of the innovation that will later emerge.

In the famous words of the immortal guru Peter Drucker: “When a new venture does succeed, more often than not it is in a market other than the one it was originally intended to serve, with products and services not quite those with which it had set out, bought in large part by customers it did not even think of when it started, and used for a host of purposes besides the ones for which the products were first designed.” (1985)
Yes, innovation is a process.  But you can’t manage it like any other business process; it requires a new vision of management.  After you finish my book Group Genius, I recommend The Future of Management by Gary Hamel.

11 thoughts on “Is Innovation a “Business Process”?

  1. That’s exactly the issue I talked about in my post…usually when we think of “process” we think of something linear, with a sequence of steps. And innovation absolutely is not like that. In the post, I conclude that it is a process, of sorts, but it requires a special kind of leadership and culture, open to improvisational flows, twists and turns, and the unexpected. What do you think?

  2. I was taking a look on your blog! Wow, it’s just amazing!!
    Talking about the discussion subject, it’s a really interesting point of view. While thinking about innovation, you don’t have steps to be followed just because you don’t know what’s going on next… because everything’s new… practices mainly are new… That’s a good reason of why innovation is such a matter of discussion nowadays… Here in Brazil it’s a subject that has risen lots of discussion… enterprises hardly get along with innovation, and then… you may imagine what happens…

    Congratulations on your blog!! I just loved it!!
    Brgrds, Andréia

  3. Thank you so much! I wonder if you’ve read one of the magazine articles about me that have appeared in Brazil (in the magazines Visao and Istoe). In my book GROUP GENIUS, I talk about an innovative Brazilian company called Semco…I hope you like it!

  4. No, unfortunately I haven’t … But I’ll search it on the internet…
    I read Exame… it’s a megazine a little bit more specific (about trade, management…) I’ll buy Group Genius this weekend, I’ve heard great comments about it from some Brazilian professors… I’m sure I’ll like it!!

  5. From my point of view then radical innovation is a process since it most likely happen in the R&D department (looking at the internal value chain). Evolutionary innovation happens spontaneous when employees and managers finds better ways to do their jobs (adding or altering the processes they have interaction with).

    But then again it is just my point of view.

  6. Hello, my name is Luis Duarte and i’m from Mexico City, before everything, your post is just what i’m looking thank you for sharing. i would like to ask you about more information concerning to this post, because i’m doing my thesis in itil as a model to help the communication professionals to being involved in the IT processes. question is ¿had you written a book about this, or have some research documentation? anything that you could lend me it’s so important to contrast my hypothesis with the opinion from experts and opinion leaders. thank you in advance and best regards.

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