From Process to Framework

Definition of Process[1]

Sequence of interdependent and linked procedures which, at every stage, consume one or more resources to convert inputs into outputs. These outputs then serve as inputs for the next stage until a known goal or end result is reached.

Definition of Framework[2]

Broad overview, outline, or skeleton of interlinked items which supports a particular approach to a specific objective, and serves as a guide that can be modified as required by adding or deleting items.


The experience of having participated in hundreds of innovation projects over the past decade has unequivocally demonstrated that no two innovation projects are ever the same. Every effort starts with its own unique set of intentions, its own initial situation and faces a different universe of unknowns. In addition, the pace of change and the increasing complexity of both the design space (i.e. technology universe) and the demand space (i.e. customer universe) makes it impossible to design a ’best process’ for the front-end.

Imagine an innovation process, a very comprehensive, rigorous and flexible one. A process that has literally hundreds of specially designed tools developed over a decade organized according to the stage they should be used in and the work stream they affect. Even with such a process, every single innovation initiative will be different in some significant way. Of course there are patterns and common themes, but the particulars will always need to be customized. When it comes down to it that answering the questions ‘what are you trying to do? what do you want the outcome to be?’, even with the same group but at two different times, has a different answer depending on the specific circumstance. The reason for this is due to the very nature of the front-end which causes innovation to be unlike any other process an organization uindertakes.

Organizations today need to react and respond faster than ever to changing design (technology possibilities) and demand (community wants) environments . This response must happen in a world in which the amount information and knowledge is growing at an exponential pace and what people want is becoming both increasingly customized and increasingly demanding. The need for a faster response in an exponentially expanding universe of knowledge and experience means, that if nothing changes, decisions about new offerings will be made using smaller and smaller ‘slices’ of the possible knowledge ‘pie’ for both technologies and markets. Instead of a ‘best front-end process’, what about a rigorous but flexible innovation framework from which the right people, tools, methods and projects can be assembled to fit the intention  and situation of the moment – no matter how fast it is changing.

Front-end innovation processes developed over the past decade that rely on sequenced stages of learning, analysis, decision making, development and execution, are now becoming overwhelmed by the front-end situations for which they are being relied upon to deliver. A new paradigm is required to accommodate, and accelerate, the pace of innovation. This new paradigm is an Innovation framework.

Framework Definition

To paraphrase the definition above, an Innovation Framework is a broad skeleton of interlinked knowledge assets which supports a comprehensive and modular approach to creating innovative artifacts, and serves as a guide that can be modified as required by adding or deleting items.

The knowledge assets relevant to innovation are those that direct activities such as discovery, synthesis, analysis, creation, and decision making, among others. Since innovation depends on the learning and use of new knowledge, the ‘things’ that an innovation framework links together in a broad skeleton are those chunks of knowledge that tell you what to do and when, why and how. In other words, an innovation framework consists of innovation knowledge structures and the activities needed to ‘fill-in’ these knowledge structures in virtually any possible circumstance. The framework can then be used by an innovation team to assemble and control the specific learning activities that make up any and all innovation efforts.

As an example, consider a company that wishes to use its existing technology assets to expand into a market that is adjacent to the markets it now operates in (how the company decided that it should do this is itself an activity that a robust innovation framework would also address). This company has a specific set of knowledge assets focused on current technologies and markets that may or may not be relevant.  They need to acquire additional knowledge assets to decide a) is this a good thing to do, b) what new offerings and enterprises need to be created and c) how to proceed.  The way in which a, b and c are best accomplished is dependent on the circumstances of the moment and the dynamics of both the current knowledge base and the targeted adjacency itself.

For example, what is the first piece of information (or knowledge) that the team undertaking this initiative should acquire? Well, that depends. If the adjacency has a very different value network than the existing market, then perhaps understanding the new value ecosystem would be the most urgent task (but how do you know that it has a different value network in the first place?). If the technology being used as the basis for expansion is a platform technology, then the first thing that you may want to learn is if it would still be a platform in the new adjacency, so you should first look at the various applications and uses in the new market. On the other hand, it may make more sense to first understand the new market at a high level by looking at market research reports or it may be best to dive right in and start understanding specific customer needs by doing ethnographic research. Or, depending on the sense of urgency, it may make sense to do all of these things at once.

These are the types of innovation dynamics that are very difficult for an innovation process to accommodate. In contrast to an innovation process, an innovation framework does the following

  • Replaces a fixed sequence of interdependent and linked procedures of a process with a flexible network of knowledge assets from which dynamic learning cycles can be constructed.
  • Replaces stages and gates and the concept of sequentially converting  inputs into outputs that then serve as inputs for the next stage with a dynamic set of learning cycles that overlap, are of different ‘sizes’ and that can be created or terminated at any time based on the discovered circumstances
  • Replaces an a-priori defined outcome or end result (e.g. develop a business case) with emergent outcomes and results that are then used to determine the appropriate next actions
  • Replaces a fixed set of decision points, decision criteria and a go/no-go mentality with decisions based on current evidence and a mentality centered around focusing and shaping opportunities to make them compelling.

All of these things are accomplished using a framework approach to innovation initiatives. But, as has been mentioned and alluded to several times, it is critical to the successful implementation of a framework that there be some means of determining and describing your current circumstance. This is where intention and situation come into play as central to the framework architecture.

Intention and Situation

Imagine a multi-billion dollar company that has a strategic mandate to grow faster than their industry average and achieve higher gross margins. Such a company has multiple options open to it and multiple risks associated with any option it takes. This company will have a myriad of internal components (units, divisions, groups, teams etc.) each of whom operates in a constantly changing and evolving landscape of existing business and new opportunities. At any point in time, the question ‘where do we go next?’ will need to be answered based on the current context of the organization as a whole and the current circumstances of the division, unit or group within the organization that is undertaking the innovation initiative. In other words, action is dependent on both the intention and situation of the moment. If one can accurately describe the current intention and the current situation, then one has a basis for knowing what needs to be learned.

  • Intention – the specific objectives of the moment – what needs to be learned
  • Situation – the current state – what is known now

These two components form the current state of the organization’s innovation initiative. Each of these can (and does) have external and internal components. Each of these is a hierarchy of states that runs from the highest level (find a new space for us to enter) to the most detailed level (determine the customer segments).  From an accurate description of these, the framework can suggest assets and learning cycles that are appropriate. Of course, by undertaking the suggested learning cycles, the current state (i.e. the intention and situation) is changed making the whole innovation initiative a self modifying and constantly adapting system.

Transitioning to a Framework

The front-end is fundamentally different than other process functions within the organization. It is not driven by demands for operational excellence. It is not possible to a-priori define what a success will look like. It must deal with the utmost ambiguous and uncertain environments. It is these differences that make the transition from a process to a framework so compelling. This brief introduction provides only the briefest taste of what is possible (and inevitable) with this new front-end paradigm.

The coming decade will see this emphasis on front-end innovation frameworks instead of the continual tweaking of front-end processes. Those organizations that adopt this approach will be better able to accommodate the ever increasing pace and complexity of the front-end.

[1] From Business Dictionary

[2] From Business Dictionary

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