Innovation Toolbox - Tools and techniques for the stages of the innovation process

by Peter Merrill

It was Kaoru Ishikawa who famously said that quality professionals only need six tools. If you think back to experiences you may have had while performing carpentry or plumbing in your home, or mechanics on your vehicle, there are essentially six tools you use 95% of the time. 

I realize that what I am saying is heresy to the Six Sigma devotee who has dozens of tools available for the method. Nevertheless, there is a core set of tools from which innovators can choose. Generally, innovators should select one primary tool and perhaps one secondary tool to use in each stage of the innovation process. The terms tools or techniques can be used, as they can serve the same purpose.

Remember, the stages in the innovation process are:

  1. Identify the opportunity.
  2. Find conceptual solutions.
  3. Select the preferred solution.
  4. Develop a working solution.
  5. Deliver the solution.

Tools for opportunity

Before you begin, you should use an assessment tool to identify your innovation competencies.1 Those with the aptitude of "creators" start the innovation process, so let’s begin by looking at tools for finding opportunities. 

Change is coming at organizations from more directions than ever before. As the marketplace changes, the innovator assesses the effect on their customer and uses the findings to identify new customer opportunities. To do this, identify the nature of those changes before you talk to your customer—know the legislation, technology and the foreign competition affecting your customer. With this knowledge, you will have an informed conversation. Your customer will respect your knowledge and be more willing to show their "pain."

The tool for identifying these macro effects is the environmental scan. The scan identifies changes affecting key customers and shows where they will experience pain. The innovator addresses that pain. The changes this scan will address are those caused by:

  • Economy.
  • Government.
  • Law.
  • Technology.
  • Environment.
  • Sociocultural changes.

There are many secondary tools associated with the scan, but one important tool for innovators is peripheral vision,2 which asks questions such as:

  • What are previous blind spots?
  • What other industries give us analogies?
  • What signals are you rationalizing away?
  • What are mavericks saying to you?
  • What are peripheral customers and competitors saying?
  • What surprises could really hurt you?
  • What new technologies are game changers?
  • Is there an unthinkable scenario?

The onset of big data has changed what you can gain from the environmental scan. While people have concerns regarding privacy invasion, big data provide big information —and hence, big knowledge. Knowledge is the fuel of the innovation process. Big data can be used for customer profiling to enable more customized solutions. For example, T-shirt-maker Threadless asked 1.5 million customers to submit designs. Their customers then voted for the preferred design. 

Other tools and techniques for finding opportunities are focus groups in which you ask customers questions such as, "Where are you having difficulty?" A cost-of-quality assessment can help find opportunities for process innovation, and the Kano diagram can identify changing customer requirements. Your aim is to create a "burning platform" to force change.

Plato said necessity is the mother of invention. Increasingly, digital tools are entering this first-opportunity stage, but also they are enabling more testing of potential solutions in the second stage of innovation, such as customer immersion labs using digital reality.

Connecting solutions

Stage two of the creative phase is connecting opportunities to the solution, and it requires that the problem be defined. Defining the problem means creating a pain statement for the customer and defining the problem in process terms. The solution comes from connecting to the new, changed environment.

People who are good at this are called connectors because they find solutions in completely new environments. 

Traditional problem solving occurs in the left-brain analytical mode and tends to find solutions by addressing issues within status quo, for example, a broken step in the process, unclear requirements or a need to develop competencies (Figure 1). The innovator, on the other hand, looks for solutions outside the box.

The best way to connect these solutions is through collective knowledge. There are a number of tools and techniques available to harness collective knowledge, and the best known is brainstorming. An article in the New Yorker3 argued that brainstorming does not work. Yet, it works if the correct process is followed, and the process has been developed over years. 

You must ask: Do people know the problem? Is there diversity, and will solutions get challenged? Are disruptors—people who will disrupt conventional thinking—present? Ideally, you need at least 20 to 30 people in a group. It is similar to the think tank technique of mixing disciplines to create a spark of genius. Breakthroughs occur at intersections of bodies of knowledge.

Loosening up is a key component in creating what Edward de Bono calls lateral thinking.4 Icebreaker exercises are well known tools for this. Research then shows the average adult thinks of three to four alternatives for any given problem. Get 20 people at a table to write three to four ideas of their own, and go through a series of steps until they get up to 40 different ideas from the group. Pushing people beyond 40 to 100 ideas forces them beyond the obvious into wild territory. The key issue with all of this work is volume. As Linus Pauling said, "The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas."5

The reason for this process is that it allows people to make crazy suggestions in private and without ridicule, and then gradually share those ideas and build on them. There are a number of variations on this process, such as brainwriting (Figure 2), word association and the Japanese NHK technique.

Mitigating risk

The project tipping point is when the strategists reengage to address and mitigate risk. Radical innovations produce more profit, but entail more risk. The new product portfolio must balance short and long-term time to market. We also assess partners’ quality management system capability by auditing them and their deliverables. 

To address risk, we need data. Creative individuals may not always enjoy data collection, but it’s vital in managing risks.6 The data are probably going to be complex, but don’t lose sight of the end goal. You want the most radical new offering with the best return on investment at the lowest risk. Call it utopia, but that is where we aim. Figure 3 shows a 3-D risk tool representing this idea.7

A key strategic tool at this point is the stakeholder resistance and influence chart (Figure 4). People with vested interests can stop a project in its tracks. They must be identified and their concerns addressed out in the open.

The hard part

Now move from a loose mode of the project operation to a tight one. It’s important to move with speed and know the project has moved from an open network to a closed one. The creative work was the "fun stuff." Now the hard work begins. 

In the development stage, the task is to make the offering user friendly. Work by Daniel Kahneman for his 2002 Nobel Prize in economics shows there must be a tenfold increase in perceived value for the new idea to be accepted. We measure ease of use versus radical nature and involve operations and sales for this. A great tool emerging for use at this stage is 3-D printing.8 It enables us to prototype new product ideas quickly and cheaply, and test them on potential users (Figure 5).

Conventional project management tools and techniques become critical here with stage gates, and frequent monitoring and review. Project management involves several tools, but a top choice is the Gantt chart (Figure 6). It also can be used in the creative phase but more loosely.

At the final delivery stage, the pain statement is addressed with a value proposition focusing on benefits to the user and not on the technical features developed. The value proposition must link to the existing solution with a "similarity statement" so that people feel secure; they will be cautious of having to change behavior.

First you need a statement. Examples include: 

  • "You can still go to regular gas stations." (This statement addresses concerns with buying propane.)
  • "You will use your existing software and it will not be affected." (This addresses concerns about new software damaging existing software.) 
  • "You can store the mop easily." (This gets the user thinking on the context of existing cleaning equipment.) 

Next, you need the two or three primary benefits the buyer will get from your product. A busy person’s memory can hold at the most three benefits and, remember, they are probably going to need someone else to agree with the benefit before they buy your product. Make sharing easy for them. List the two or three benefits in each of the two or three categories of time, money and people. Then, monitor user experience to optimize feedback.

This article references far more than six tools, and several are "second layer" tools. To simplify, here are the primary tools or techniques for each stage of the innovation process: 

  • Opportunity: environmental scan.
  • Concept: creative problem solving.
  • Selection: risk assessment and stakeholder influence.
  • Development: ease of use and project management (Gantt chart).
  • Delivery: value proposition. 

References and note

  1. You can access the innovation aptitude assessment tool
  2. George S. Day and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, "Scanning the Periphery," Harvard Business Review, November 2005.
  3. Jonah Lehrer "Groupthink," New Yorker, Jan. 30, 2012,
     (case sensitive).
  4. For more information on lateral thinking, visit
  5. Quotations Page, Linus Pauling,
  6. Peter Merrill, "Risk and Development," Quality Progress, May 2013, pp. 42-44. 
  7. Ibid.
  8. Peter Merrill, "The New Revolution," Quality Progress, January 2014, pp. 50-52.