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Why ISO standards fall short in innovation management

Give them a wide berth.

Bruno Pešec Dan Toma
Bruno Pešec / Dan Toma
4 min read
Why ISO standards fall short in innovation management

Co-authored with Dan Toma.

There are companies nowadays that are recognizing the importance of innovation for their long term strategic intent. Some of these companies have had great experiences with innovation in the past and just want to double-down on the effort and professionalize the practice; while others want to do it, prompted by the success competitors had with innovation-led growth. 

Regardless of the ‘why’ most companies struggle with the ‘how’. From these, there are some that turn to industry standards as a guide. However, at a closer look, the ISO 56000 family of standards for Innovation Management, has limitations when it comes to helping companies get real results from their investments in innovation:

1. Standards are not what they used to be

Standardization efforts were primarily driven by the manufacturing field, especially following the devastating effects of World War II. Great majority of standards were focused on specific material parts, properties, applications, and similar. They were objective, dry, devoid of personal opinions, and based on verifiable empirical data. They had clear causal relationships: if this, then that. Engineers and other professionals could rely on them, and use them to improve quality, drive down costs, and achieve better safety.

Then in the 70's quality management system standard began to gain popularity. What was at first just a few pages of guidelines with very clear and sharp sentences (BS 5750:1979), has today exploded into a document that needs a document that needs a document to be wholly understood (ISO 9000:2015). Unfortunately, from what we have read, the ISO 56000 family of standards is firmly in the tradition of modern-day, bloated and unverifiable, shovel-ware pushed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

2. A history of unethical behavior and conflict of interests

ISO grew and slowly consolidated the world of standards. At one moment they decided that printing and selling standards will be their main business. Forget end-customers' benefits of implementing such standards! Just publish more, more, more! Instead of fighting so-called certificate mills (places where organizations can buy ISO certificates at low price and without any quality control), they doubled down on the mass production model. 

Another problem is that practitioners in various technical committees (an organizational unit which develops a certain family of standards at ISO) were slowly replaced with auditors and consultants. These same people would work on the standards and then publish guides to getting certified before the standards were even live! Christopher Paris has been meticulously documenting ISO's misbehavior, including conflict of interest for at least one author of ISO 56001. So much about standards being independent and objective.

3. Getting ISO management system certified 

There was a time when organizations relied on ISO standards like ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems and ISO 14001 Environment Management Systems. Alas, today due to all the problems listed above, including certificate mills, getting certified has been completely disassociated from actual systems and firms' performance. It has turned into a large-scale kabuki theater where organizations put things on paper, and auditors then pretend they are real, so they can stamp another piece of paper that will be hung somewhere. In other words, just like you don't need ISO 9001 to implement a quality management system, you also don't need ISO 56001 to implement an innovation management system. In fact, you might be better off without them.

So, what’s the alternative?

€1200 is how much it'd cost you to get all the published ISO 56000 standards. You can get 40 great books on innovation management for that price.

In fact, if you want to take a deep dive into innovation management and are interested in practical know-how, we wholeheartedly recommend you the following ten books:

  1. The Corporate Startup by Tendayi Viki, Dan Toma, and Esther Gons. A comprehensive manual for creating and implementing an innovation ecosystem.
  2. The Crux by Richard Rumelt. Helps you understand what a sound strategy looks like and helps you develop one offering a clear set of tools and techniques on the topic.
  3. Discovery Driven Growth by Rita McGrath. The book presents a comprehensive process that lets you identify, manage, and leverage your company's full portfolio of opportunities.
  4. Mapping Innovation by Greg Satell. Provides a simple-to-use framework for identifying the optimal innovation strategy that is most likely to lead to a successful outcome and a step-by-step guide to creating your own innovation playbook.
  5. Game Changing Strategies by Constatinos Markides. Great book on business model innovation and business ambidexterity with numerous less-known examples.
  6. What Customers Want by Tony Ulwick. The best primer on jobs-to-be-done and outcome-driven innovation.
  7. Building a Culture of Innovation by Cris Beswick, Derek Bishop, Jo Geraghty. Presents a practical framework that you can follow to design and embed a culture of innovation in your business.
  8. Dual Transformation by Scott Anthony, Clark Gilbert and Mark Johnson. Propose a practical and sustainable approach to transforming your business in the face of imminent disruption.
  9. How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard. A guide on how to think about measuring so you can design meaningful metrics—for anything.
  10. Innovation Accounting by Dan Toma and Esther Gons. Everything you need to know about measuring and tracking innovation—from strategy to portfolio to innovation teams.

The path to innovation-led growth doesn't hinge on conforming to a standardized checklist, but on understanding your company, its strategic needs and above all, the value creation process (innovation process). In other words, success won’t come from adhering to a standardized script; but from crafting an innovation system that is authentic, impactful, and tailored to the individual needs and aspirations of your organization. But this won’t be something you’ll be able to turn around in one quarter as it requires discipline and perseverance. 

However, if all you need is for your company to just look proficient with innovation while having close to zero returns, or have a badge to hang on the wall or on PowerPoint presentations that will distinguish you from other as a company caring more about image than substance, or you simply just need to justify in front of the board the past and future innovation budgets, then the ISO Standard for Innovation Management might be exactly what you are looking for. 

InnovationStrategyLeadershipQuality Management

Bruno Pešec

I help business leaders innovate profitably at scale.

Dan Toma

Strategic Advisor, Innovation Expert, Speaker, Author.

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