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Innovation Epicycles - The Needed Layers of Innovation

By Michael S. Slocum

Layers Upon Layers

In a commentary, I discussed the Ptolemaic model of the solar system and how this model was revised as observational data indicated it was faulty. Rather than replace the existing, the Ptolemaic model was modified by adding additional cycles (epicycles) to the planetary orbits to allow the theory to explain the new experimental data. This is analogous to the nature of many innovation initiatives.

The Ptolemaic epicycles in the field of innovation can be applied to the prevalent theory that innovation is an innate ability that cannot be learned and is therefore a scare and finite resource – the theory of innovative scarcity (TIS). The proponents of TIS allow that ideation may occur as the product of all focused intelligent activity but this work has primarily been relegated to brainstorming sessions, various provocation techniques, and other psychological and emotional innovation exercises. There has been no shortage of epicycles added to this system. Recent books on the topic of innovation have described several of the most prevalent innovation epicycles: innovate the work-space (e.g., IDEO), dedicate time for innovation activities (e.g., Google) and empower people to be innovative (e.g., P&G). These are important elements for the successful proliferation and practice of innovation, but alone they are little better than the epicycles added to the Ptolemaic model.

Theory of Innovative Plenty

Conversely, there is the theory of innovative plenty (TIP) – the ability to be innovative can be taught and therefore each person’s innovative capability may be systematically enhanced. Innovation, therefore, is renewable and a potentially infinite resource. (The TIP model is to the TIS model what the Copernican heliocentric model was to the Ptolemaic epicycle model.) There are fundamental aspects that any innovation epicycles must have in order for the epicycles to succeed:

  • Culture: The organizational culture must value innovation and value those who ideate are valued for that contribution, as those who keep the business successful through daily emergencies are valued. Ideation must be subsidized and led through the organization by leadership. Management has to expand its role to include more than telling the innovative mavericks, “No. Now go do something important.”
  • Infrastructure: The organization must develop the necessary infrastructure to support the application of both preservation and evolution activities. Expectations must be identified for the output of the innovative process and funding needs to be earmarked for the support of spontaneous innovation. The application of innovation must become a requirement for advancement in the organization. Innovation metrics must be adopted and reported with the fervor and frequency of the typical financial metrics. Intellectual property (density and quality) must be significantly enhanced by the innovation efforts. Innovative activities and outcomes must be integrated into the vision, mission, strategies and objectives of the organization. The innovative work must be rewarded and communicated – vigorously – throughout the organization.
  • Methodology: This is the major difference between TIS and TIP. Where TIS proposes that innovation is the random juxtaposition of determination with unmet societal need, TIP advocates the existence of a systematic family of algorithms that reduce the practice of innovation to an exact science (well – more exact than it was, anyway). This has a design analogue as well. Design was practiced as an art for much of its history as an established discipline. The development of axiomatic design by M.I.T. professor Nam Suh provided a much-needed component to the art of design – the science of design. The art and science of design is considerably more effective than a mono-modal approach to the discipline. Similarly, systematic innovation brings science to what has been the art of innovation. This bi-modal approach to innovation brings method to the practice that is teachable, repeatable, reliable and predictable. The traditional dilemma that exists when employees have been empowered and made responsible but are not capable may now be resolved. With method comes application and with application comes proficiency. Proficiency breeds capability, and capability coupled with empowerment and responsibility produces significant cultural stimulation.
  • Proficiency: Once culture and infrastructure have been developed to support the practice of systematic innovation, the systematic methods (TRIZ, TILMAG, HRP, etc.) may be applied with the expectation of successful implementation. The effective practice of the methods will produce results and proficiency. This will drive repeat application as well as the development of internal and sustainable systematic innovation competencies.

Culture, infrastructure, method and proficiency provide the necessary traction (think the four wheels that keep a race car on the road) for the realization of TIP. Additionally, the previously mentioned innovation epicycles may now be applied to enhance performance inside TIP instead of floundering without tangible benefit in TIS.

Being Agile and Ambidextrous

An agile and ambidextrous company will leverage TIP to predict its future by developing it while maintaining its stability and resource generation by continuing to excel at its normal business processes. Resources will shift between preservation and evolution as needs shift. Being competent in the art and science of innovation allows a company to perform vital operations with a high level of competence: acceleration, agility and restraint – the ability to accelerate a concept to commercialization, the ability to adapt to the voices of the customer and society, and the ability to stop any activity that fails to correlate to achievement to the strategic plan.

A company’s innovation intelligence will be enhanced and will eclipse the benefits achieved by simply practicing innovation in select areas of the organization (e.g., R&D). It is time for the third wave (systematic innovation) to follow the first wave of productivity and the second wave of quality within organizations.


It is time to move from the perception of innovation being a series of eureka moments and fiat. We need to augment our trial-and-error (not trial-and-success) capabilities as the modern corporation cannot afford the resources required to make it repeatable, predictable or reliable. The applications of the innovation epicycles (e.g., innovate the work-space, dedicate time for innovation and make innovation everyone’s responsibility) are highly effective when they are operational within a TIP framework that is driven by the art and science of innovation. Let’s abandon TIS and rapidly move to more accurate models that offer higher value to businesses.

About the Author:

Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) or visit