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Is Innovation a “Business Process”? May 16, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in Genius Groups, Innovative networks.
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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.
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