Until You Have Creative Skills, Innovation Tools Are Useless

CreativityCheck out this insight:

The same holds true for innovation: Innovation tools can’t help if you don’t have certain skills mastered.

Anybody who in the last 8 years claims to be an innovation consultant is selling some version of a methodology, even if they personally have never done anything new, surprising and radically useful.

Everyone is selling either lean startup of design thinking; or both. Think about design thinking, for example. I know a bunch of consultants who have made it a part of their value proposition just because, you know, it works.

But does it, you know, work?

Sunil Malhotra asked for my view:

Here’s my answer:

Hello Sunil, I’m also not on the DT bandwagon not because I don’t believe it works but because I’m not a fan of template thinking. Same thing with Lean Startup. At the end of the day these “methods” are just that, not guarantees and they’ve been pitched as such. Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process. There is no innovation without empathy and experimentation, it’s been true since the start of humanity, don’t need a template to tell me that.

Any idea’s value is enhanced by timing. We’re living in complex times, many things going on and hard to put your head around it; templates help reduce such complexity. Plus, people love anything that looks like a recipe; including large incumbents. Thoughts?

Basically, consultants like coming up with processes that sell for large piles of cash, and established companies like processes; the promise of repeatibility sells.

The fact that something can repeated defeats innovation

Sunil made an important point in his reply to my comment:

Thanks Jorge, for sharing your views. Interesting that you don’t summarily write off DT. My own view is that templates help standardization and repeatability and there just can’t be value in “repeatable innovation”. The very fact that something can be repeated consistently defeats innovation. Wholeheartedly agree that the problem is less with the value proposition and much more with the way it is being pitched.


See, design thinking focuses on the two most important innovation activities that are hard to teach: empathy and experimentation.

Many established companies don’t do either. For example, let’s start with empathy, many believe that they know their customers, so they stop talking to them; and just sell to them. But people’s needs change, and staying on top of that requires empathy.

The point: customer discovery never stops.

Now, we’re all empathetic, some more than others. Great designers are naturally empathetic, and that’s what design thinking is really trying to bring to the table: a mindset that doesn’t see customers as numbers on a spreadsheet, but rather people with motivations, likes, desires and needs.

And that’s why innovation is hard: people are messy. Believing that the process will save you is a sin, because you can’t buy your way through the mess that leads to innovation.

There’s a belief that great outputs result from simply using tools and following them to the T. They don’t. I have nothing against tools, they are useful because they provide a sense of certainty, but putting too much faith in them is wishful thinking.

Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process, many focus too much on the process; innovation is an outcome.

If not tools first, then what?

Mindset and skill set. Ask yourself: What do innovators do differently that imitators don’t?

They perceive differently because they ask more questions, observe more, are eclectic, cultivate a diverse network of people and try more stuff; the tools they use enhance their skills. Not the other way around.

Think about it, when you hire for innovation you don’t hire a methodology; you hire a person with a unique attitude and mindset. Yes, we’re all creative. But people become complacent, routine takes over and they stop using their brains for non-routine tasks.

Innovators, on the other hand, deliberately battle against complacency; it’s how they create new realities.

I can tell you from first-hand experience that a mind that moves like water versus one that is stagnant, without the use of tools, makes a whole lot of difference when brainstorming or going through the innovation process.

I’ve seen this first-hand, you put people in a room that haven’t put themselves in a creative state in a while, give them tools and hope they come up with something interesting; 99% of the time they don’t because they feel overwhelmed.

And putting their skills to use, like asking questions, hurts their brain because they’ve never surprised it. It’s the reason why I created a workshop that specifically shows people how to be creative through the use of skills; and then enhance them with tools.

The bottom line is this: creativity is a habit; innovation is the outcome of putting those habits into action. Methodologies and their accompanying tools have their place, but not before the habit exists. 

  • sunilmalhotra

    Ever wonder how a good doctor is able to focus on the one or two possibilities even without the help of diagnostics? Now go try teaching hospital administrators the trick. Good designers are just like good doctors. They find great alternatives, not necessarily by processing information (codified) like a computer does but by an invisible skill–Design Thinking. Malcolm Gladwell explains the phenomenon in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005) [I’m not saying I agree with everything in the book … nevertheless]. Thanks for a great piece, Jorge.

    • Exactly!

      I asked a highly empathetic friend of mine if he uses techniques to “care about others”; of course he said no. Same goes it problem solving. You have to care about the problem (empathy) and have the awareness that the road to figuring out a solution is not going to be a straight line (experimentation). And in that road we certainly use tools, but it’s not a given that with them we’ll be successful.