Decoding innovation: Exploring the interplay of theory, method, tools, and context

Decoding innovation: Exploring the interplay of theory, method, tools, and context

Published On:
February 9, 2024

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is,” noted the American industrialist and financier Benjamin Brewster. I agree because I have worn an entrepreneurial and academic hat for the past two decades. Balancing these dual responsibilities has meant lots of work hours on the one hand, but working in the field and the lab also has been a viable strategy both for developing creative talents and creating, fine-tuning, and testing creative methods. 

As part of my academic duties, I advise Ph.D. students during their dissertation project at Bangkok University’s Ph.D. in Knowledge & Innovation Management Program. Recently, I volunteered to give an extra doctoral seminar to help our new Ph.D. batch. This initiative was because I had noticed that many postgraduate candidates struggle to understand the difference between and interconnections of four critical phenomena: theories, methods, tools, and context. So, in a slightly more brainy article today, let’s explore these four phenomena of actual know-how relevant to academia and business.

Theories: Making sense of the world looking down from the clouds

“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve,” suggested the Austrian-British science philosopher Karl Popper. Theories operate at the highest level of abstraction and provide a broad, overarching framework of understanding. They help explain why certain real-life phenomena occur and predict future occurrences. 

For example, the theoretical perspectives of the Triple Helix Model, the Innovation Systems Approach, and the Innovation Ecosystems Theory all offer explanations as to why a few geographical areas (such as the Silicon Valley or the Boston, Massachusetts area) have become global innovation hotspots, while most other locations don’t. These theories can help policymakers, educators, financiers, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople understand what it takes to create an innovation hotspot and predict where new ones might emerge in the coming years.

Theories are foundational and offer a lens through which we can interpret observed phenomena, collected data, and actual outcomes. Subsequently, they often inspire the development of new methods and the selection of suitable tools on the lower levels of abstraction. In a nutshell, theories are like clouds high up in the sky, explaining the world down below.

Methods:  Following a structured approach to achieve real-world results more effectively 

“Art and science have their meeting point in method,” suggested the English writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Likewise, being positioned at a medium level of abstraction between theories and tools, methods bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical aspects of research and doing business. 

Methods are systematic approaches derived from theories, guiding how we conduct research or solve problems. Methods outline the steps we need to follow and the techniques we may opt to apply while taking these steps. 

For example, the Simplified CPS Method, Design Thinking, and X-IDEA are all methods to work on innovation challenges or solve business problems creatively. Each method proposes three to five clear process stages that innovators must pass through while working on an innovation case. As such, methods constitute clear pathways to follow while walking through a concrete project. 

Tools: Handling a specific task better on the practical grounds of reality

“Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools, he is nothing; with tools, he is all,” noted the British essayist and philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Firmly grounded on the lowest level of abstraction, tools are the practical instruments and techniques used to implement a method and perform a particular task at one of its stages. 

For example, Brainstorming, What If, and Morphological Matrix are creativity techniques used in the Ideation stage of each of the three above-listed innovation methods. These tools help innovators create more —and better— ideas by following precise instructions on how to apply each tool. After all, “A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think,” as the American author Jeff Duntemann suggested in this connection.

Tools are tangible and typically serve a narrow, specific purpose, such as instruments for measuring a particular phenomenon, software for analyzing data or thinking tools to interact directly with the practical world. Compared to methods and theories, tools are more prone to change over time due to the emergence and evolution of technologies. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos observed in this context, “We change our tools, and then our tools change us.”

To sum up, tools are the practical implements we use in the real world to get things done smarter, faster, and more efficiently. 

Context: The map describing the territory in which we apply theories, methods, and tools

“Scientific knowledge is, by its nature, provisional. This is due to the fact that as time goes on, with the invention of better instruments, more data and better data hone our understanding further. Social, cultural, economic, and political context are relevant to our understanding of how science works,” suggested the Indian theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan. And the American computer scientist Alan Kay even suggests, “Context is worth 80 IQ points.”

Context provides the backdrop against which we apply theories, methods, and tools. It represents the environmental, social, cultural, and economic circumstances that influence and shape the application and interpretation of theories, the selection of methods, and the use of tools.

Here, it is essential to realize that context is not merely a passive setting but evolves dynamically with changes in the real world. Hence, it actively interacts with and impacts the other three constructs, influencing their relevance and effectiveness.

For example, the shift from the knowledge economy to the innovation economy since the start of the new millennium provides the backdrop against which we have witnessed a growing interest in theories related to innovation hubs, methods to approach innovation challenges in more structured ways, and creativity tools to create more diverse ideas during an Ideation session. 

In short, the context describes a cross-section of the natural world, its players, and their issues against which we apply tools and methods and deduce the theories. “For me, context is the key - from that comes the understanding of everything,” said the American painter Kenneth Noland.

Example:  Understanding the theoretical, methodological, tool-related, and contextual background of TIPS

TIPS is a 21st century talent and innovator profiling method I created for thinkergy. I designed TIPS to support creative leaders in optimizing the people side of innovation and human capital managers in improving their talent management against the advent of the Sixth Wave of technology innovation (context).

Now let’s float one level up to the theory level: the TIPS method is founded in —and adapted constructs from— theories on personality and cognition (such as Jung’s Personality Traits, the Trinary Brain Theory, the Split-Brain Theory, Adaptor-Innovator Theory, and others). However, one vital methodological construct of TIPS —the TIPS bases— goes back to the domains of innovation, evolutionary economics, and the social sciences (such as the theories on Long Waves, Creative Destruction, Social Cycles, and Technological Determinism). 

When scaling down to the tool level, we use the TIPS Innovator Profiling Platform to profile people based on a questionnaire derived from the theoretical constructs. We also created a tool to visualize the results of different team members in TIPS Team Profiling Maps. Currently, we also prototype a new TIPS Job Role-Profile Fit Tool to help companies bring the right person onto the bus and make sure that everyone on the bus sits in the right seat and is working on the right things.  


“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is,” noted the American industrialist and financier Benjamin Brewster. 

Congratulations if you have made it to the end of this rather conceptual article. Don’t worry if you haven’t understood everything I talked about in all detail; as your subconscious mind probably has registered everything, you are likely to connect the dots between the four constructs at a later time when you work on a concrete research, business, or innovation project in real life. 

On the other hand, if you could follow everything I discussed, own a master’s degree, and have a bit of time and money, consider signing up for a Ph.D. program in innovation management at Bangkok University or another university offering this exciting track. 

  • Would you like to learn more about TIPS? Check out our website and short video, and consider downloading our TIPS brochure. 
  • Are you a creative leader eager to educate and energize your team with our creative breakthrough know-how? Contact us to tell us more about your goals so we can tailor a solution to your specific innovation needs.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2024. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.