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Using the Right Innovation Tool for the Right Innovation Job

04/20/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

getty_85406625_9707279704500146_53844An all-purpose solution is never the answer to your innovation challenge. Creativity initiatives come in all different sizes--and so should the tools we apply to achieve them. Be wary of innovation techniques or frameworks that claim to solve everything. The team that comes up with next miracle drug needs a radically different set of tools than the designers looking to improve an already-great app.

In the 1980s, I worked for a think tank that helped launch an extremely popular innovation technique. The creators co-wrote a best-selling book and the technique quickly became a lucrative franchise. I was disturbed to see what other people wanted to do with this method. Facilitators and consultants made grand, ungrounded claims that this technique could be applied to anything. In reality, it didn't do half the things that people claimed it did. And many of the things that it did actually do quite well, outsiders simply didn't see.

When people discover a great tool, they suddenly want to use it everywhere. If you give a child a hammer, everything needs a pounding. A tool kit is, after all, not unlike the set of techniques available to innovators: a hammer, a saw, and a wrench are all indispensible when you're building or repairing something, but they're not interchangeable. You can't use a wrench when you're supposed to be using a saw.

The same is true of innovation practices. The strategies you use to market a breakthrough new product will not help you re-conceptualize the way you build an old one. So how do you decide which tool to use when it comes to your innovation project? Here are three factors to consider.

What is the intended use of the innovation? First, consider the domain of innovation that this tool is targeted toward. Is it meant for engineering? Artistic creation? Medicine? Then, consider the stage of innovation that this tool is meant to facilitate. Is it ideal for the early stage of brainstorming, the middle stage of implementing ideas, or the late stage of marketing? For example, analogical group creativity techniques are likely to help you create and connect ideas but won't help you implement them.

Who is the intended user of this innovation tool? Some innovation techniques require extensive training--possibly even mastery of a specific set of skills--while others are accessible to novices. Can you rely on your own intuitions to use this tool or do you need specialized knowledge? Inventive problem-solving techniques based on physical attributes, functions, and constraints can help you develop a better engine but won't help you design a fashionable new restaurant.

Where is the outcome of this innovation tool most valuable? Determine which kinds of settings this innovation technique thrives in. Is it conducive to the conversational spirit of informal get-togethers, the rigid schedule of strategy meetings, or the chaotic energy of design labs? The other crucial factor is timeline. Is this tool meant for long-horizon projects, quick wins--or is it contingent upon other departments and procedures? For example, 12-step continuous improvement processes are effective as part of a structure regime of review and revision but certainly not for a 30-minute executive meeting where a crisis needs to be resolved immediately.

Be discerning when choosing the right tool for your innovation project. But also keep in mind that your favorite technique may say more about you and your own biases and worldview than it does about its most effective use. So be open to using an approach you might not normally use. The perfect tool for your challenge might just be the one you forgot was is in the box.