The Myth of “Unstructured” Innovation

creative-thinkingI’m grateful to everyone who commented on my post, Does Innovation Need “Structure”? Many agreed with my assertion that adopting a formalized process (“structure”) provides innovation with direction and helps create what is commonly known as culture of innovation. Yet, predictably enough, some folks disagreed. They argued that innovation requires “unstructured way of thinking.” For this reason, their argument goes, “structure stifles innovation.” Here, I’d like to address this argument.

Let me start with a brief history of iPod. If you consider, as I do, iPod as one of the most innovative products of our times and yet believe that innovation has to be “unstructured” to deliver results, then the creation of iPod must represent a classic example of highly-intuitive, uncontrolled action of a creative genius. Right? Wrong. To begin with, iPod had a predecessor, MP3 player, created by Tony Fadell (not Steve Jobs). Fadell pitched the MP3 concept to Philips and Microsoft, but was turned down. Apple then hired Fadell and put him at the helm of a dedicated and tightly managed product development team. And, by the way, Apple outsourced to other companies part of the iPod software development as well as the user interface design.

Now, I understand that Steve Jobs made some brilliant technological and business decisions in the process–perhaps, when taking shower or bath, who knows–but I don’t see anything “unstructured” in the way iPod was created.

I strongly suspect that many people calling for “unstructured way of thinking” as a prerequisite for innovation are confusing innovation and creativity. My point of view is that for as long as one considers innovation as invention (a product of creative thinking) followed by implementation (essentially project management), innovation can’t be unstructured. That being said, am I ready to concede that at least the creative thinking component of innovation is completely unstructured? No, I’m not.

In his excellent book, “Borrowing Brilliance,” David Murray showed that creative thinking was a structured six-step process. Each step has its peculiar set of features and rules, understanding and following which can make your idea more creative. I highly recommend Murray’s book to any proponent of the “unstructured thinking” concept. I’d also like to point out to the tremendous practical success of the design thinking approach, a formal methodology for creative problem solving. And I’m not going to tell Tim Brown, a design thinking guru and the author of highly influential book, “Change by Design,” that his book is no more than a collection of recipes to “stifle innovation.”

Let me finish with quoting the advertising genius David Ogilvy who, in my opinion, gave the best description of how innovation and structure are connected: “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.” This is how I interpret what Ogilvy was saying: Here is a problem we’re trying to solve. Here are the requirements any successful solution must meet. Here are the criteria we’ll apply to select the best solution. And that’s it. Now, go and find this solution. And while doing this, feel free to be creative, innovative, unexpected, unpredictable, unprecedented, uncontrolled, bold, wild, out-of-the-box and out of hand. And unstructured too, of course.

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About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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4 Responses to The Myth of “Unstructured” Innovation

  1. Pingback: Building your innovation “dream team” |

  2. Pingback: 3 of the Best Innovation Team Formulas…and When to Ignore Them -

  3. Pingback: 3 of the best innovation team Formulas…and when to ignore them – Hoje Consultoria em Inovação

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