working in a design lab
Innovation tools can help organize, inspire and maintain initiatives. But remember: tools are only there to support PHOTO: Christian Fregnan

Promoting and crowdsourcing innovation is a hot topic in corporate strategies. Innovation is seen as a means to help organizations stand out in a crowded market and compete in an ever-changing technical and customer-driven field.

Historically, innovation has been the domain of a small number of specialists: research scientists, futurists and eccentrics. But the demand for innovation has now spread from primary industries to the tertiary sector — from products to services. So how do we innovate in workplaces that have typically relied on their core offerings, knowledge and skill-base rather than invention?

Innovation tools are becoming more sophisticated and increasingly social to help fill this need. By combining elements of the digital workplace, automation and innovation management we have a number of off the shelf tools designed to support and even drive innovation in the workplace.

In this article, I'll explore these as well as having a look at other tools which you might not think of as innovation tools per se but that can help spark creativity.

Innovation Management Tools

Let's start at the top, with the high-end, process-driven and outcome-focused platforms. These all-encompassing tools have built-in innovation workflows designed to support innovation management, end-to-end. They are highly strategic, and although idea development is integral, they are also focused on trends, analytics, portfolio management, piloting and execution. Innovation Management solutions, such as those from Itonics and Sopheon, have been successfully deployed by a number of the world's more advanced organizations to support and lead innovation as part of a sophisticated innovation strategy.

These tools are often seen in manufacturing and product industries, such as automobile, pharmaceuticals and software. If research and new product development is central to your business, then these tools are very much aimed at you. And although they do have a social aspect to them, they are advanced, specialist tools designed to fit the unique workflows of innovation and design teams.

If you are after more generic idea management tools, read on.

Ideation Tools

Ideation tools are less about end-to-end innovation process and more about creating and developing ideas. They are a great solution for general innovation initiatives, idea generating exercises or even just collaborative working. They can be strategically deployed in support of a comprehensive innovation program, or on their own as part of an engagement activity with the workforce.

If procuring ideation tools, try to avoid ones that simply collect ideas, have a rating/voting mechanism and apply an approvals workflow — you'll be lucky to get anything truly innovative out of these. These are just a list of solutions looking for problems. The good news is, the majority of ideation tools today are entirely collaborative in their approach: crowdsourcing the experiences of teams and even entire workplaces in developing not just ideas, but concepts, suggestions, problems and opportunities. So at the very least you will have ramped up your collaborative activity and made some new connections.

Ideation tools can be standalone, for example Spigit. Or they can be designed, as Sideways 6 has done, to work alongside enterprise social tools (Workplace by Facebook and Yammer, to mention two) to exploit existing social networks and deepen their reach across the workforce.

Planning Tools

Planing tools are not specifically marketed as innovation or ideation tools, but can support innovation through stage management, mapping and workflow. They can also be used in tandem with other, more specific innovation tools. 

Planning tools are essentially support tools that are applied to a specific issue, problem or project. Channeling an entire innovation program through them may not be appropriate, but using them to further develop ideas or to raise awareness of issues can help with smaller details, performance and problem solving.

Tools, such as Atlassian's Jira and its lighter stablemate, Trello are excellent at planning and tracking issues. Although Jira is very much targeted as a software development tool, it is often used to manage projects and issues across all business functions. As such, it makes it handy in tracking the development of proof of concepts and pilot programs.

Using planning tools along with product dashboards helps to elevate local work or team projects to an enterprise level, providing an extra level of visibility and interaction. Aha! is one such tool that integrates with Jira to produce roadmaps and a more holistic approach to innovation. Teams can also use Aha! as an idea management tool in it's own right, with more of a project development mantra than ideation tools.

Brainstorming Tools

Sometimes we just need something to help us get a little more creative. Before we even have an idea, how do we actually get our creative juices flowing?

If you're after a brainstorming tool for meetings, Stormboard is effectively a digital sticky note board, capturing ideas with the ability to further develop them and create reports. This is a useful tool for when meetings are carried out virtually but you like posting notes and visually collating ideas, or if you are in a room but want giant touch-screens to impress (and capture everything rather than grudgingly typing up the notes afterwards).

Mind mapping is one such brainstorming technique that works well digitally. Here, we have a central thought or concept (often a problem, issue or challenge), from which we draw out sub-thoughts or sub-concepts. Strands of thought relating to our concept can then help us connect to other thoughts, ideas and experiences. Mind maps are also fluid to use on computers, allowing us to easily share and collaborate over maps. Mindjet's Mindmanager and Sketchboard are two effective and clear mapping and visual tools that work well for personal as well as corporate use.

Innovation Starts With People

Whatever you choose to deploy, remember: these are just tools. Innovation comes from people, and people will only use these tools if they feel the need to. Tools can provide a focal point for innovation campaigns and a 'call to arms,' but you do have alternatives. The point of innovation programs is to tap into the intellectual capital of your workforce, so look at how you can draw out fresh thinking. The key is to disrupt the day-to-day and empower people to look sideways and to look ahead. Tools can help achieve this, but it can just as easily be done through changes in the working environment: the ways in which we interact with each other, our customers and our collective knowledge.

Any investment in innovation software must be accompanied by full engagement in the process. Without helping our people to develop confidence in participating, we'll be stuck with lovely innovation tools without innovation.