The leading approach to innovation

Design thinking is the leading approach for executives and entrepreneurs who wish to lead innovation in their organizations. Design thinking can loosen the bureaucratic tangles of large organizations and create bold, fresh products and services that delight customers and dominate the competitive landscape.

Design thinking addresses the root causes of project failures. This creates organizational confidence to innovate.

Why your company doesn’t innovate

Why is everybody on my team creative, but my team isn’t creative?

Imagine your company makes widgets. Your company and the employees within your company make a good living producing this widget.

If somebody says that we should look into making a second kind of widget, the only way to make this happen is to take resources away from widget one. This could be problematic because widget one is where all the company’s money comes from.

The challenge of course is that no widget in its original form can be profitable forever. Either the function or desire that that widget fulfils becomes irrelevant or competitors find a way to make the same widget, driving down your margins to the point of no profit at all.

This is why companies must have a pipeline of new widgets, or improved widgets, or ways of making their widgets cheaper – some form of innovation – or risk oblivion.

However, if there is a frenzy of innovation – if people come forth and say they want twenty new widgets – then you can easily imagine that widget one will be starved of resources and in the short term at least there could be a disastrous impact on the profit and competitiveness of your company.

This is why Steve Blank describes this frenzy of innovation as “a denial of service attack on core capabilities“.

Planning to fail

“No new idea has ever been proven in advance.”

Roger Martin

Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. This line of thinking can imply that the first step in any endeavour is a plan.

The two flaws in this line of thinking are the assumptions that you know exactly what the outcome of the project of the plan should be and that you know exactly how to bring about that outcome. For most projects that are truly innovative, neither of these conditions are true.

The more novel the work, the less certain the outcome. Under the guise of prudence, leadership in a company can demand projects be planned in such detail that success is assured. Although not said in so many words, the ethic is “let’s not do anything until we know everything.”

This creates an impossible situation for anyone proposing innovation. For any new endeavour it is impossible to know everything in advance, so the organization shelves all but the least ambitious initiatives.

With these assumptions in place, either the organization shies away from innovation, or it has to enter into a consensual hallucination. It’s this second mode of failure that is more deadly.

Buckling under the pressure to “be innovative”, a project team creates a project plan that implies more certainty than is warranted, making outlandish promises about results and low costs and fast implementation. This plan will be accepted even though it contains only a glimmer of truth – and then the pain begins.

The end result is a project running late and over budget, or an end result that can barely be force fit against original desires.

Better every time

Design thinking is the perfect antidote to both the timidity that comes from uncertainty, and the hubris of false certainty that causes projects to become huge failures.

Design thinking makes it possible for companies to take small, measured steps toward innovation, confident that the end result will be desirable, feasible and viable. It does so with two main strategies. The first is to consult the people who are affected by and who will affect the project you intend to undertake. The second is to take the smallest possible steps in the direction you want to go and reassess at each step.

In design thinking parlance these two prescriptions are referred to as human centeredness and iteration.

By gathering feedback continuously and iterating based on that feedback, new products or services can be produced continuously – better every time.

This is the essence of design thinking.

Why is it called Design Thinking?

If you’ve heard of design thinking you’ve probably been reassured that while it emerges from the design community, it is not design. It is in fact a way of propelling innovation – the creation of something novel and useful.

To many this distinction is welcome because it demonstrates that design thinking can be applied in all settings, not just by people who have the hex values for the Pantone colours of the year memorized and understand the intricacies of kerning.

But! Look around you. Chances are you are sitting on something that was designed, in a building that was designed, wearing clothes that were designed, drinking from a cup that was designed, and so on. We inhabit a manufactured landscape, and that means that almost everything around us was designed.

It should come as no surprise, then, that design-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 219 percent between 2004 and 2014.

If you are making something over and over that was designed long ago, you are in a commodity business. What’s the fun (or profit) in that? Spend too long doing the same thing over and over, you may find yourself replaced by a machine. Let’s embrace design as part of our lives and our livelihoods.

Say it with me – “I am a designer!”

The Design Thinking Approach

Design thinking is an innovation strategy that uses empathy and experimentation to develop novel products and services. The goal is to create or improve products and services customers want without relying on historical data that only applies to existing products and services.

The design thinking process begins with seeking to understand the user and their needs through observation and interviews. Ideally the observation takes place under the actual conditions in which the user will interact with the product or service being altered and created. Then the design team will develop an actionable problem statement with the insights developed during contact with the user. What improvement do we hope to give the user?

With the problem statement in mind, the team will ideate, gather as many ideas from the team as come to mind. If the ideas are first in short supply, “shuffle the deck” with the many ideation techniques available. Each idea presented can inspire additional ideas, so it’s okay to present “wild ideas.” Once the design team has a large number of ideas to review, narrow them down to a small set of ideas to prototype.

Using the minimum of resources and time, produce a prototype that the users can evaluate. Rather than a fully functional example of the product or service, a prototype can be a model, a sketch, a wireframe – as long as it gives a clear sense of what will be different if the idea it embodies is pursued. The goal is to produce a prototype that can be tested – experienced by the users.

Using low cost prototypes is key, as this nurtures the appetite of the organization to go through the cycle more than once. Each iteration brings the design team closer to a complete understanding of the user and the solution.

At the end of the design thinking process, you will have produced a product or service that truly meets a human need, is technically feasible and economically viable.