The Five Hottest Innovation Tools


In 25 years in the innovation field, I’ve seen a lot of innovation tools come and go. Let’s face it, tools are trendy. They get introduced with great fanfare at conferences or in the Harvard Business Review. A high profile company or two starts touting the tool. A case study gets written up. And then, often as not, the tool gently fades away.

What seems to gives a tool staying power is its usefulness. Brainstorming is a tool with staying power. It was invented by an ad man in the early ’40s and is still popular today, why? Because it works. If you and your group need to shake up your thinking, if you need to consider more alternatives, brainstorming works. If you follow the “rules” that is (appoint a facilitator, don’t analyze during the session, go for quantity not quality, etc).

Not long ago I gave myself the assignment to report to you on the top innovation tools trending now. My team and I looked at ideation tools, commercialization tools, idea management tools, selection tools. There’s no lack of tools out there let me tell you.

The ones that bubbled to the top of the list are below. But I cannot vouch for their staying power. Only time will tell. Only practitioners like you will determine that by which tools you continue to use over time to do your work.

So after you’ve digested this list, I’d truly like to hear what tool(s) are working for you.  Which ones have you tried and found wanting? What’s your all-time favorite? Please complete this 50 second Innovation Tools Survey click here). Here are the five:

1. Lean Startup Movement: Taking Silicon Valley by Storm

General Electric’s recent adoption of this tool is reported to be the biggest new movement in the company since Jack Welch embraced 6 Sigma in 1995. This hot tool originated in Silicon Valley, as a process mapping system for tech startups. Today it is increasingly being adopted by larger multinationals to decrease time to market and bloated budgets. Similar to the business model canvas tool, it addresses the most pressing question innovation practitioners face: How do you get new things done faster and cheaper in today’s world of strangulating bureaucracy, rising costs, and 6 Sigma controls? The answer, according to Lean Startup evangelists, is: instead of heaping money on ideas, be stingy. Encourage everybody to think like a startup. Dole out very limited budgets, form cross-functional teams, and streamline development of new products and services that have the potential to disrupt markets because of differentiated value propositions.

GE’s program, called FastWorks, has given the movement a tremendous boost. Already, 40,000 employees have been trained after CEO Jeffrey Immelt green-lighted the biggest internal movement since Jack Welch adopted 6 Sigma  in 1995. Each business unit has a “growth board,” which meets to give thumbs up or down to potential projects. Thus far, some 300 projects have been approved. Before, a development team might have spent four years building a new product based on marketing surveys. FastWorks promises to cut development time in half. What’s the right value proposition? The Lean Startup method suggests constantly taking your prototypes before customers throughout the development process to get real world feedback, and course correction in half the time and at half the cost.

2. Ethnography: Use This Tool to Discover Your Customers Emotional Hot Button

While focus groups ask, ethnographers observe. Trained ethnographic researchers (think Margaret Mead in New Guinea) at Google, Intel and IBM observe consumers where they live, work and play, searching for insights into their subconscious and unarticulated needs. By gathering qualitative data, ethnographers help businesses uncover hidden opportunities, and spot problems consumers have that they are not solving particularly well, and later brainstorm superior solutions. Kaiser Permanente used observational research to better understand the unmet needs of hospital visitors, who often help make critical decisions for patients. Citibank observed subway patrons paying for their rides, then used insights to design a key chain tag that could be easily swiped in crowded stations. Expedia used ethnographers to revamp their marketing approach to cruise customers.  The only drawback: observational researchers need training in how to observe, and how to interview consumers, to bring out the whys in the observed behavior.

3. Open Innovation: A Tool for Expanding Capabilities by Partnering with Outsiders

With global R&D budgets declining in real dollars over the past decade, partnering externally with suppliers, universities, and other entities has become the tool of choice for a growing number of organizations. Open innovation (the term was coined by U.C. Berkeley professor Henry Chesbrough) came to prominence when Procter & Gamble adopted the methods with their pioneering Connect and Develop program. Today, over half of the firm’s new product ideas originate from outside the company.

4. Design Thinking: A New Tool for Creating “Insanely Great” Products

What’s the difference between a MacBook Air and a HP desktop PC? Insanely great design! And that’s the goal of this increasingly popular tool: to help developers create products and services that are aesthetically attractive and user-friendly, and make competitive products seem dowdy by comparison. AirBnB used design thinking to finally connect emotionally with its customers and begin a meteoric assault on the lodging industry. Philips Electronics uses its design thinking unit to give cache to a once-fading brand. Some critics in the design world have declared this tool dead, but in an empathy-challenged world, the need to teach the elements of good design to software developers, engineers and executives is sorely needed.

5. Business Model Ideation: Use This Tool to Start Thinking Like Steve Jobs 

Nestle’s Nespresso machine-and- coffee pod breakthrough is a business model innovation on par with King Gillette’s invention of the razor and replaceable blades model of 1904. Ditto Apple’s iPod/iTunes business model, which revolutionized the music business. Netflix put Blockbuster out of business by introducing videos as a subscription service. As new products can be copied faster than ever, business model innovation (the systems, revenue model and value added services surrounding your offerings) has risen in importance. If you want to discover a new model for your industry, this family of tools can help. Structured ideation sessions focused on UC Davis professor Andrew Hargadon’s Eight Ways to Make Money can open new models for consideration. Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas can expose faulty assumptions in the revenue model. Innosight’s Scott Anthony outlines the DEFT process (Document, Evaluate, Focus, and Test) in his new book, the First Mile. No wonder Business Model Ideation is being taught in leading business schools and “lean startup” workshops: it helps mere mortals to think like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and King Gillette.

Okay, now you’ve perused my short list of top tools. But you, reader, are the co-creator here. Please give me some quick feedback on the tools you regularly use, and your comments on tools that you’ve tried to use, that just didn’t work so well. In a future issue of InnovationTrends, I’ll summarize all comments received. Click here to fill out the survey.