5 Innovation Frameworks Decoded: When to Use What

5 Innovation Frameworks Decoded: When to Use What

In Part 1, you learned the What, Why, and How of 5 popular Innovation Frameworks – Human-Centered Design (also known as Design Thinking), Systemic Design, User-Centered Design, Lean Start-up, and Agile.

But as anyone who grew up in the 1980s and watched G.I. Joe will tell you, knowing is half the battle.

The other half is doing. More specifically, doing the right thing at the right time.

This brings us to Part 2 – the When of our 5 Innovation frameworks.

The Innovation Process

Before we get into the specifics of when to use each framework, let’s get clear on the activities that need to happen and the order in which they need to happen. In other words, we need to define an Innovation Process.

I know that sounds like an oxymoron. After all, you know that innovation is not a linear process. At best, it’s iterative. Usually, it looks and feels like this:

But you also know that this image doesn’t inspire confidence in senior leaders because it looks like chaos and doesn’t haven’t a timescale. 

So to make the process more palatable to the powers that be, the Innovation Process is often shown as linear. Something like this:

Of course, that means that we, the innovators, must explain that the work isn’t, it’s an infinite loop with exit points at each step, and not every project can or should complete all the steps. It’s not perfect, but it serves its purpose (reassure senior leaders that we have a plan), so we’ll use it to help guide us to when to use each Innovation Framework.

Frameworks in the process

Now that we know the basic order in which activities should occur, we can return to our frameworks to determine which ones will best serve us in each step of the process.

“But wait!” some of you may exclaim. “Can’t we use them all?”

You can, but you don’t need to. Human-Centered Design and User-Centered Design are incredibly similar, and trying to use them both is more likely to confuse than clarify the work to be done.

“I knew it!” others will laugh, “that’s why I only use (fill in the framework).”

You can, but you shouldn’t. Every innovation has its strengths and weaknesses. The most successful innovators pull the best approaches and tools from each framework into their process.

Here’s how I think things fit together:

How to Interpret:  The thicker the colored band in a column, the better suited the Innovation Framework is for the phase in the process. For example, Human-Centered Design is excellent for Diagnose, Design, and Develop phases, useful in De-Risk, and ok in Deliver. In contrast, Agile is not at all suited for Diagnose and Design but is excellent for De-Risk and Deliver.

In Diagnose and Design, lean heavily on Human-Centered Design because it keeps you open to all the types of people involved in the problem and the solution (not just users). If you’re operating in a complex environment, like healthcare or education, being in Systemic Thinking to make sure you don’t miss non-human elements like regulation, technology, or geopolitical dynamics that could also have a significant effect on the problem and eventual solution

In Develop, start weaving in elements of Lean Startup, especially its focus on building business models and not just individual products or services. Tools like the Business Model Canvas are a huge help here and reveal critical but non-product/service assumptions that need to be tested.

In De-Risk, Lean Startup and Agile become (relatively) interchangeable, so use the language that best resonates within your organization. The key here is to apply the Scientific Method to your solution through rapid prototyping and testing.

In Deliver, you’ve launched your solution, and the goal is to scale. Agile is designed for this, but it’s essential to keep the human/user at the center of continuous improvement efforts.

You’re now even more of an expert on five popular innovation frameworks, ready to talk the talk and walk the walk with the best of ’em. Right?


This is all the opinion of one person in a world of experts who think and who do. So what did I miss? What did I get wrong? Drop a comment, and you’ll make us all smarter!

Click here to automatically download the What, Why, How, and When Cheat Sheet

5 Innovation Frameworks Decoded

5 Innovation Frameworks Decoded

Forget secret handshakes, guarded rituals, and clandestine meetings.  The easiest way to show that you’re a part of the “In-Crowd” is by throwing around obscure terms and incomprehensible acronyms.

Every industry has words and acronyms that only make sense to insiders.  Stock traders have BOP (Balance of Power), Consumer Goods companies have ACV (All Commodities Volume), and, thanks to the military, we all have SNAFU (Situation Normal: All F-cked Up)

Innovators are no different.  We throw around terms like Design Thinking, Lean Startup, ethnography, Discovery Driven Planning.  We rattle off acronyms like VUCA JTBD, and MVP.

But do we really know what the industry terms and acronyms mean? 

More importantly, are we sure that our definition is the same as our boss’ or colleague’s definition?

If you’re even a little bit like me, your answer to both of those questions is No.

And that feels awkward because it can lead to confusion, frustration, and disappointment in your work and your team. 

So, let’s get back on the path to building clarity, efficiency, and support in your innovation efforts!

In Part 1, we’ll get into the What, Why, and How of the 5 of the most popular Innovation frameworks.  Next week, in Part 2, we’ll dig into the When of each framework in the innovation process.

Human-Centered Design (also known as Design Thinking)

  • What it is: A problem-solving framework that integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success grounded in 3 principles:
    1. Inspiration: Understand customer needs
    2. Ideation: Generate creative ideas
    3. Iteration: Rapidly prototype and test
  • Why it is important: Useful in solving “wicked problems,” problems that are ill-defined or tricky and for which pre-existing rules and domain knowledge will be of limited or no help (or potentially detrimental)
  • How you do it:
    • Qualitative research with tools like ethnography and Jobs to be Done to build empathy with the customer
    • Ideation to identify and explore lots of possible solutions
    • Prototypes to build, test, and refine solutions

Systemic Design

  • What it is: A way of making sense of the world’s complexity by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts; grounded in 5 principles:
    1. Acknowledge the interrelatedness of problems
    2. Develop empathy with the system
    3. Strengthen human relationships to enable creativity and learning
    4. Influence mental models to facilitate change
    5. Adopt an evolutionary design approach to desired systemic change.
  • Why it is important: The increased complexity caused by globalization, migration, sustainability renders traditional design methods insufficient and increases the risk that designs result in unintended side effects.
  • How you do it: This is an emerging innovation discipline with multiple schools of thought and dozens of potential tools.  To learn more and find tools, check out the Systemic Design Association.

User-Centered Design

  • What it is: A framework in which usability goals, user characteristics, environment, tasks, and workflow of a product, service, or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process and grounded in 6 principles
    1. Design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
    2. Users are involved throughout design and development.
    3. Design is driven and refined by user-centered evaluation.
    4. Process is iterative.
    5. Design addresses the whole user experience.
    6. Design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.
  • Why it is important: Optimizes the product around how users can, want, or need to use it so that users are not forced to change their behaviors and expectations to accommodate the product.
  • How you do it: Personas, scenarios, and use cases that capture the context, behaviors, habits, and instincts with

Lean Startup

  • What it is: A methodology for developing businesses and products that emphasizes customer feedback over intuition and flexibility over planning, grounded in 5 principles:
    1. Entrepreneurs are everywhere.
    2. Entrepreneurship is management.
    3. Validated learning.
    4. Innovation Accounting.
    5. Build-Measure-Learn
  • Why it is important: Aims to shorten product development cycles and rapidly discover if a proposed business model is viable
  • How you do it: The most common tools are:
    • Canvases: Business Model and Value Proposition
    • MVP (Minimally Viable Product)
    • Metrics that are actionable (vs. vanity)
    • Innovation Accounting
    • Build-Measure-Learn loop, including A/B testing


  • What it is: A project management philosophy that expanded to be used in innovation and business transformation
    1. Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools
    2. Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation
    3. Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation
    4. Responding to Change Over Following a Plan
  • Why it is important: Improves time to market, quality, and employee morale
  • How you do it: The most common tools are:
    • Agile teams that are small, entrepreneurial, and empowered groups
    • Operating Model with focuses on leadership and culture, management systems, structures, talent, and processes

So What?

By now, you’ve probably noticed that the frameworks above are very similar – many of them are centered on the customer, value diverse experience expertise when creating solutions, and prioritize iteration over perfection. 

So, which should you use?

The answer to that question depends on two things: your company and where you are in the innovation process.  We’ll dive into those topics next week.

As you wait patiently for Part 2:

  • Tell me what I got wrong, what I missed, and what you think in the comments
  • Download this handy cheat sheet to the What, Why, and How of 5 Popular Innovation Frameworks
4 Phrases Every Innovator Should Know

4 Phrases Every Innovator Should Know

Before setting off on a journey to strange lands, most travelers take time to learn an essential phrase or two in the native tongue. After all, the ability to say “Hello” or “Help” or “Where’s the bathroom?” in the local language can mean the difference between a trip you remember forever and one that you want to forget immediately.

The same is true for people in large companies who set off on a quest to innovate – you’re in a strange land, and having a few handy phrases at the tip of your tongue can mean the difference between success and failure.

Here are the four most important phrases you should know as a corporate innovator

What does success look like?

Ask this at the beginning of every innovation effort. If you don’t, it’s very likely that what you view as success and what decision-makers view as success will be two different things.

Staffing up a new innovation team? What does success look like?

Starting a new project? What does success look like?

Developing and testing a prototype? What does success look like?

And don’t accept a vague or even qualitative answer to the question, like “we’ll know it when we see it” or “better employee engagement.”  You need to know precisely what an effort contributes to and how leaders will evaluate the effort. Otherwise, it’s easy for managers to “move the goalposts” right when you think you’re about to score.

We expect a new innovation team to hold five brainstorming sessions and test 3 new products this year

We need this project to generate $10M revenue in 3 years from today

We need to understand how consumers will use this if we don’t give them any directions

Will you help me?

This question is perhaps the most challenging but most potent phrase in the innovation-to-corporate dictionary. 

By the very nature of your work – making something new that creates value – you’re doing something that doesn’t fit cleanly into the existing structure. While that can be liberating, it also means that there are few, if any, people obligated to give you advice, resources, or support. That’s where this phrase comes in.

We all love to feel important and valued, and nothing makes people feel more important or valued than being asked for help. Plus, when you ask for help, people feel like they’re contributing to what you’re doing and start to feel a bit of ownership (or at least fondness) for it. Soon, you not only have advisors, but you also have partners, advocates, and champions. 

Tell me more

This phrase is the ultimate innovation jiu-jitsu phrase because it turns your opponents’ strength (of opinion) against them and gives you powerful insights.

That will never work. Intriguing, tell me more.

We tried it, and it failed; the same thing will happen this time. I didn’t know that, tell me more.

If you do that, you’ll be fired. We don’t want that, so tell me more about why that would result.

Sometimes the rationale behind powerfully delivered dogmatic statements is logical and valid. Often, it’s emotional. The person who said it would never work is afraid that, if it does, their job will be in jeopardy. The person who remembers when it was tried before still bears the scars of that attempt and wants to protect you from the same experience. The person who says you’ll be fired for doing something may think that the rules are stricter than they are, and they’re trying to help you.

This phrase helps you figure out the reason behind the statement, the Why behind the What, so you can figure out what is true versus believed and how to get to your desired outcome.

What do you need to see to say “Yes”?

This question is my personal favorite, taught to me by a good friend, career innovator, and successful entrepreneur.

It is easy to say “No” and, in fact, that is the purpose of many people in a large organization. 

Legal says No to keep the company o the right side of the law and out of lawsuits.

Accounting says No to keep the company financially healthy

Your boss says no because you have more work than you can handle, and this doesn’t seem essential.

Sometimes “No” is the correct answer. But if you start there, you’ll never know if it is the right answer or just the first, easiest, or most instinctual answer. 

So, once you hear “No,” engage the person you’re talking to in a quick intellectual exercise and ask what they need to see to say “Yes.”  By engaging them as an expert and your thought partner, you’re lowering their defenses and bringing them into a problem-solving mindset. Plus, you’re getting valuable insight into the type of data and evidence required to make progress.

What are other phrases every innovator should know?

As anyone who has ever tried to quickly learn a language for an extended trip, you’re best served by seeking out multiple sources. 

After all, if I relied solely on Rosetta Stone to learn Danish before I moved to Copenhagen, I would have arrived knowing only how to say “the girl is on top of the airplane” (phonetically, it’s “pia pa flu-va-ma-skine”) and not “Hello” or “Help” or “Where’s the bathroom?”

So what are the phrases you repeatedly use to navigate your corporate innovation journey?

“Jobs to be Done” Doesn’t Work.  (But one of these options might)

“Jobs to be Done” Doesn’t Work. (But one of these options might)

Before we go any further, I need to be clear that I absolutely, totally, and completely believe in Jobs to be Done.  In fact, more than once, I have uttered the words, “Jobs to be Done is a hill I will die on.”

Which means that I died a little inside when a client recently said to me,

“Jobs to be Done is amazing.  ‘Jobs to be Done’ sucks.”

He’s right (as much as it kills me to admit that).

In an academic setting, the term makes perfect sense.

I understand where the term comes from and applaud the logic and clarity of the analogy at its core.  Just as a company hires a person for a task or set of functions (a job), a person “hires” a product or service because they have a problem to solve or progress they need to make.  They have a Job to be Done.

Managers and executives who work with me to learn Jobs to be Done and how to apply it quickly grasp the concept.  After just one-hour, they can re-tell and explain the Milkshake story, identify functional/emotional/social jobs in role plays, and swear that the approach completely changes how they see and think about their business.

In the real world, the term is profoundly confusing. 

Then the managers and executives, believing so strongly in its ability to transform the business, decide to roll it out to the organization.  They talk about it, send articles about it, and train everyone to apply it in customer interviews.  With great excitement, everyone from employees to senior leaders fan out to talk to customers, take copious notes, discuss insights with their teams, and happily declare that their customers’ Jobs to be Done are to buy the company’s products. 

Here’s a quick (and entirely fictional) example:

  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Company (CCCC): Hello, Ms. Customer.  We want to learn more about your snacking habits.  When you snack and why, what you like to snack on and why, stuff like that.
  • Customer: Great!  I love to snack on chocolate chip cookies, but the store-bought ones are expensive, and they’re filled with preservatives, and I’m trying to be healthier.  I’d make my own, but I don’t have time. 

CCCC returns to the office and declares that the customer’s Job to be Done is to buy cheap all-natural cookies from a store.

Ummm, no.  Not even close.

The customer’s Jobs to be Done are to be healthy, manage her money, save time, and feel good about what she eats.  CCCC’s job (literally, the company’s reason for business) is to make cookies that customers want to buy.

What CCCC identified as a customer Job to be Done is the company’s job (business).  In other words, it’s a solution.

Why the confusion?

In the real world, people already have precise definitions of “job” in their heads.  They have a job (role).  They have a job to do (responsibilities, deliverables).  Their colleagues have jobs (roles and responsibilities).  They have job openings (hiring needs).

By assigning a new meaning to the word “job,” we’re not only asking people to change how they think and talk, but we’re also asking them to adopt an entirely new understanding of and use for a common word. 

Imagine being told that “orange” means both a color and a cooking technique.  It makes the brain hurt.

What’s the solution?

I don’t know.  But here’s what I’ve tried.

  1. Problem 
    • Pro: It’s part of the definition of a Job to be Done, and we all know what a problem is
    • Con: It focuses customer conversations on existing pain points and sets a negative tone in interviews, making it challenging to discover solutions that delight the customer and, as a result, could inform how the problem is solved.
  2. Need
    • Pro: It’s the OG of consumer research, a term we all know and use
    • Con: It anchors customer conversations in functional Jobs to be Done and makes it difficult to surface the emotional and social Jobs that drive decisions and behavior.
  3. Customer Job to be Done
    • Pro: Uses the original term while being VERY clear that the focus is on the customer
    • Con: It’s a lot to say and even more to type, and people still fall back into their traditional definitions and use of the term job
What have you tried?  What are your suggestions?
Virtual Ideation Sucks.  Here’s How to Make Sure It Sucks Less.

Virtual Ideation Sucks. Here’s How to Make Sure It Sucks Less.

Over the past 987,460 days of forced WFH, I’ve participated in several virtual ideations. 

A few weeks ago, my turn to facilitate arrived.  And, after four 4-hour sessions spread over two weeks, I can confidently declare this:

Virtual Ideation sucks.

We knew the experience wouldn’t be the same as an in-person session, so we did everything to adapt.  At the end of each session, we asked participants to share their Rose/Bud/Thorn feedback.  Between sessions, a smaller group met to review the feedback, reflect on our experiences, and make adjustments for the next session.  We fixed 90% of the Thorns between sessions 1 and 2, and we hit our groove by session three.

But virtual Ideation still sucks.

There is simply no substitute for the energetic buzz of a room full of creators freed from the constraints of reality and excitedly imagining what could be.  There is no substitute for the side conversations over caffeine and sugar where two or three innovators connect disparate dots and have an A-Ha! Moment.  There is absolutely no substitute for the satisfaction that comes from stepping back and staring at a wall of ideas and the confidence that the answer is in there somewhere.

But, with Omicron and more companies realizing the hybrid work is the new reality, not a temporary stopgap, virtual ideation sessions are here to stay. 

So how can we make virtual ideation sessions suck less?

Plan sprints, not marathons. 

  • What we did: We cut the ideation session down from the typical 8-hour day to four hours, and instead of trying to ideate on multiple topics in a single session, we had a single topic for each session.  But the sessions were still too long to keep people engaged but too short to allow true reflection and building on ideas.
  • What we learned: In a virtual setting,ideation sessions are a task, not an experience.  Gathering people together for a day or two made lots of sense for logistical (usually held offsite, make participants less accessible to daily demands, reduce the cost of external facilitators) and experiential (enable focus, shift mindsets, get into the flow) reasons.  But a virtual environment eliminates the logistical rationale for daylong sessions. It can’t deliver the experiential benefits because we can’t get away from the constant pinging of email, Slack, and text notifications.
  • What we would do differently: Instead ofa four-hour session, I would do four one-hour sessions.  Yes, it will take more days, but participants will be more focused on the task and more able to stay in the creative mindset (once you get them there).  Plus, it has the added benefits of engaging more participants (looking at you, fellow introverts!) and giving people time to reflect and build on ideas.

Acknowledge that the practice and experience will be different


  • What we did: We started the sessions by acknowledging that things would feel different, the experience would be far from seamless, and that we wanted quality over quantity.  But we didn’t recognize participants’ feelings and expectations, and, as a result, the gaps between their hopes and their reality didn’t diminish.
  • What we learned: Even though people know that the experience of a virtual ideation session is different from an in-person one, they still hope that it will be the same.  This creates a challenge that participants will inevitably judge the experience not against their rational expectations but against their hopeful, emotional ones.  And it will always come up short.
  • What we would do differently: Start the session by clearly stating that the experience will be and feel different.  Acknowledge that, for many, it won’t have the buzz or the rush of an in-person session.  Admit that things will be more clunky because you’re relying on technology rather than your hands and feet to make things happen. Ask for their patience, support, and help to make the session and their experience of it as successful as possible.  Then clearly define what success looks like.

Start with FUN!


  • What we did: I hate icebreakers, “mandatory fun,” and forced group silliness.  So, we didn’t do any of that in the first ideation session.  Instead, we dove right into content, grounding people in the insights developed in the previous phase and introducing them to the resulting stimuli (personas, journey maps, analogies). 
  • What we learned: We were so task-focused that people didn’t have time to shake off their day-to-day reality, connect with the information, develop empathy for the customer, and allow themselves to be creative.
  • What we did do differently: The second session started with FUN! but rather than a random icebreaker or silly exercise, we asked a question that required personal sharing and was relevant to the session’s topic.  For example, if the session’s topic was “How might we create a more inspiring experience for members?” we asked participants to share their most inspiring experience.

By asking a personal question, people’s mindsets become more positive and open while they get more comfortable sharing and more curious about their fellow participants.  By asking a relevant question, participants build empathy for the customer they are designing for, instantly build a library of experiences and analogies to draw from, and see possibilities beyond their day-to-day realities.

The irony of it all

What’s ironic is that, as I reflect on these lessons, they’re all things that I knew to be important, but I hadn’t yet experienced their importance. 

Learn from my experience.  Make these changes in your next ideation session.

What are your experiences?  What have you learned?  What can we learn from you?

4 Storms That Accelerate Innovation (You’re Only Doing 1)

4 Storms That Accelerate Innovation (You’re Only Doing 1)

Everyone knows about brainstorms but did you know there are three other types of storms that can blow you to your innovation destination?


First introduced in The Innovator’s DNA, these storms happen at the start of an innovation effort and seek to surface all the assumptions, expectations, concerns, and actual questions currently locked in individuals’ brains. 

The value of this session is that it makes the implicit explicit, removes hidden agendas, eliminates guessing games, and establishes a culture of curiosity, exploration, and learning versus demands and fear.

You run Questionstorms just like brainstorms – give everyone 3-5 minutes to silently write a long list of thoughts.  Then, give everyone another 3-5 minutes to turn each thought into a question and write the question on a sticky note.  For example, “We need to realize $250M revenue in Year 3 to make this work” becomes “How might we design and run an innovation function that generates $250M in Year 3?”  Then, each person reads their sticky notes to the group before placing them on a wall.  The goal is to ask 50 questions before you start grouping and prioritizing.


I first learned about this storm from IDEO and am genuinely surprised by how effectively they re-energize teams and propel the work forward.  These storms happen after the first phase of a project, usually the research phase.

An Intuition-storm’s value comes from its ability to pull the team out of the minutiae of the previous weeks and months of work and back up to seeing the big picture.  In the process, they rapidly synthesize insights that may have gotten lost in the more traditional left-brained approach of gathering and summarizing details. 

Again, just like brainstorms, start by posing the big question that the project intends to answer, then give people 3-5 minutes to write down their answers.  Too much time and they may dig into documents and details, too little time and you’ll get recency bias in the responses.  Then go around the room and share.  Once everyone has shared, discuss the elements in common and the unique ones.  Be clear that this isn’t about getting to THE answer, but about tapping into the full of everyone’s experience, expertise, and wisdom.


By now, we all know what it means to brainstorm, and we’ve all probably been part of one or two brainstorming sessions.  But do you know where it all started?

In the mid-nineteenth century, “brainstorm” was a colloquial term for “fit of acute delirious mania; sudden dethronement of reason and will under the stress of strong emotion, usually accompanied by manifestations of violence.”  Not exactly the type of thing most businesspeople aim for.

However, in 1939, advertising executive Alex F. Osborn got so frustrated with his employees’ ability to generate creative ideas for ad campaigns that he developed a new approach dubbed “organized ideation.”  This approach, later renamed to “brainstorm” by his employees, was governed by four rules:

  1. Go for quantity
  2. Withhold criticism
  3. Welcome wild ideas
  4. Combine and improve ideas

While the methods and tools for brainstorming have evolved over the past 80+ years, it’s a testament to Osborn’s approach that the rules have not.


Assumption-storms are rooted in the Discovery Driven Planning approach introduced by Rita Gunther-McGrath.  These storms should occur as soon as you’ve picked the top 2-3 ideas from brainstorming that you want to pursue

By forcing the team to acknowledge that there are more unknowns than knowns at this point in the process and to share their assumptions and questions, Assumption-storms enable the team to quickly identify and test the most critical assumptions.  This process of rapid testing of individual assumptions ensures that if a “deal-killer” assumption is wrong, the project is quickly killed and a new one started.

To Assumption-storm, gather your team around the idea(s) to be pursued and list all the things you think you know but can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt AND all the things you don’t know.  Then rate each item (assumption) from High to Low based on how confident you are that the assumption is true and the negative impact to the idea if the assumption is wrong.

Because we all tend to be overconfident in our own knowledge, I like to base the High/Medium/Low scale for confidence based on what you would bet. High confidence means you’re willing to bet your annual salary, Medium confidence means you’ll bet your next paycheck, and no confidence means you bet a cup of tea. 

Once assessed for confidence and impact, the assumptions with Low Confidence and High Impact are identified as deal-killers, and you can start to develop the experiments you’ll run to help you build confidence (or kill the idea) in the next 90-days.

Storms are a-brewin.’

And that’s a good thing.  As you progress through your innovation efforts, you’ll face many storms. Some are damaging and unexpected.  Luckily, these four can not only be planned, they also propel you forward.