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Is Innovation More About People or Process?

What’s more critical to producing a breakthrough innovation—finding creative people or finding creative ideas? This is a question Pixar head Ed Catmull has asked a great many people, and he says they tend to be pretty much split on it 50/50.

This astonished Catmull. Fresh off eight blockbuster successes in a row in 2008, he was arguing in his article “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity” that people exaggerate the importance of the initial idea, whereas, as he put it simply, “talent is rare.”

A trip through HBR’s archives shows that he’s hardly alone in this view. Bernard Arnault, for instance, the executive chairman of luxury goods maker LVMH, was clearly in the same frame of mind when we caught up with him in a 2001 HBR interview. “Our whole business is based on giving our artists and designers complete freedom to invent without limits,” he said, in describing his role in managing the likes of Dior’s top designer, John Galliano (who was in the midst of marketing a dress made from newspaper) and Vuitton’s Marc Jacobs (who came up with Vuitton’s signature graffiti handbag design).

Into the people camp also falls Michael Schrage, who in the same year wrote a particularly thoughtful account of IDEO, “Playing Around with Brainstorming,” one of the first of many articles on design thinking that have graced the pages of HBR, and still one of the shrewdest. Writing in response to the publication that year of IDEO cofounder David Kelley’s The Art of Innovation, Schrage argues that IDEO’s ability to innovate lies not so much in the methodologies of brainstorming, hot teams, and rapid prototyping that Kelley describes but in its culture. It is the intensity of its people’s passion for innovation that animates IDEOs processes, he contends, forming a culture that’s “not typical, and not easy to emulate.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that companies full of motion picture, fashion, and product designers should feel comfortable with the notion that innovation depends on talent. Or that this approach doesn’t sit well with the more engineering-oriented innovation thinkers whose work forms a parallel stream of thinking in HBR (and perhaps represent the other half of the crowd in Catmull’s polls).

Let’s call this the “In my ideal world, great ideas are generated through a process anyone can follow” camp. At the most technical end, arguably, is Intel, whose innovation process, based on the precise exchange of information, is described in meticulous detail by Steven Eppinger in “Innovation at the Speed of Information.”

The goal of many thinkers in this camp is to turn the practice of innovation into something closer to a production process than a creative process precisely to produce “more ideas – better ideas!” as Robert Sutton and Andrew Hargadon put it in “Building an Innovation Factory.”

Sutton and Hargadon bring useful detail to what might seem like a generic process: start with good ideas from lots of sources, discuss them, play with them, imagine new uses for old ideas, and turn promising concepts into real products, services, and business models. Stefan Thomke describes Bank of America’s process for inventing new service offerings in similarly useful detail in “R&D Comes to Services,” in which a set of bank branches serve as a test bed for creative ideas that was “large enough to support a wide range of experiments but small enough to limit the risks to the business.”

Lego has used the systems approach to great effect; P&G has arguably elevated the factory approach to its most elaborate. Coming something of a full circle, Intuit has famously instituted a process to teach everyone to think as creatively as the talented professionals of Pixar, Dior, and IDEO. Vividly described by Roger Martin in “The Innovation Catalysts,” this process requires as much grit and persistence as systems thinking, bringing to mind Schrage’s warning that even systematically generated design cultures are hard to pull off.

An uncomfortable sense that some of these innovation processes are as hard to emulate as the innovation cultures that depend on rare talent recently led Scott Anthony to think about the most minimal steps an organization that lacked both the resources of a P&G and the creative genius of a John Galliano could take to create a reliable path to innovation. The four steps he and his colleagues lay out in “Build an Innovation Engine in 90 Days” don’t promise to turn your company into a P&G overnight. But even here, while the steps may be minimal, they are not all that simple. The first requires that top managers understand and explicitly determine how innovation fits within the larger corporate strategy. The second that they select a few areas to explore that fit with what a substantial number of potential customers really need and what the company is uniquely positioned to deliver. Then it’s time to appoint a small innovation team and assign executive sponsors to guide them.

To help in this effort, particularly for small companies that may be new to innovation, Anthony distills a great deal of knowledge from highly experienced innovators into a nicely practical assessment both the team and their sponsors can use to answer what is perhaps the most fundamental question of all—“Should we pursue this new project?”—and work out whether (or not) they’re on the right track.

In the end, the answer to the people or process question is probably “both”: people matter; process matters. Talented people can be hobbled by poor processes; hesitant people can be uplifted by smart processes. In the best of all possible worlds, extraordinary people pursue innovative ideas through processes that are perfectly suited to their talents. In the real world, less-than-perfect people are wise to use all the help they can get.

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