Putting a square peg in a round hole?

Can the innovation tools used by creative industries be embedded into traditionally non-creative organisations?

In a previous blog I wrote about an interesting workshop I attended, which taught some practical techniques for innovation. As a designer for ten years, I had routinely used many of these methods, but for lots of the group they were new. I was interested to hear how they thought these techniques could be applied to their own varied workplaces — places that few described as ‘creative.’

My query proved a sticking point. Many questioned whether bolt-ons such as annual innovation workshops, away days, or scheduled Friday afternoon hours of ‘creativity’ would have any effect when teams returned to their normal routines. The question on everyone’s lips was: ‘How can we integrate innovation into our everyday work?

Looking for some suggestions, I delved into the books and blogs of IDEO (http://www.ideo.com/uk/) – the respected, multi-award winning design agency and innovation think-tank. These are the folks responsible for ‘Design Thinking’ – a theory evolved from Roger Martin’s ‘integrative thinking’ (the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models’… and generate from them, a new, creative solution that contains elements of both models, but is superior to each’).

Tom Hulme, Design Director at IDEO London, defines Design Thinking as ‘the integration of left (analytical) and right (holistic and creative) sides of the brain.’ Basically, it’s the balancing of the needs and wants of customers, with what is technically feasible and economically viable. For any organisation — creative or non-creative — to be successful in today’s constantly changing markets, Hulme says, they must operate in a way that is simultaneously exploitative and explorative – combining the creative with the analytical.

Although design is traditionally seen as an end-of-the-line, aesthetic activity in the development process of a new product; IDEO CEO Tim Brown argues that design thinking can be used both by designers and so-called ‘non creatives’, to solve societal problems and create competitive advantage. Designers, he continues, can use it to address larger environmental and societal challenges such as education, climate change and healthcare. And ‘non-creatives’, in the wider business world, can use design thinking to help differentiate themselves from competitors, and to enhance their over-riding strategic decision-making. Brown believes if design thinking is moved to board level, it can lead to ‘dramatic new forms of value’.



How Design Thinking Works

Interesting stuff I hear you say, but how does it work? How can a corporate behave more like a design agency? In their books ‘The art of innovation’, and ‘Change by design’, IDEO CEO Tim Brown and Tom Kelly, brother of IDEO founder David Kelly, lay out an iterative methodology made of three key ‘spaces:’
Inspiration: Finding the problem or opportunity for which to create a solution

• Ideation: Generating, developing, and testing ideas to solve the brief

• Implementation: Taking the selected idea to market, and creating value for customers.

Brown and Kelly set out practical techniques for each step:

 Creating a ‘human-centred’ brief: To ensure the right question is asked, organizations must first observe the behaviour of every customer – ‘extreme’ (those who use the products or services of the organisation incorrectly) and marginal, as well as those believed to be ‘normal’. This observation allows the capture of unexpected insights, the identification of current and future needs, and the growth of organizational empathy to those needs.

 Holding efficient and productive brainstorms: Kelly argues brainstorming is not used enough, and that when it is, is not executed in the best way. His book, ‘the art of innovation’, offers a seven-step guide to brainstorming excellence.

 Prototyping fast: Testing rudimentary models, scenarios, or story-boards rapidly — and in the real world — ensures failures are fast, cheap and educatitive.

Design Thinking and Organizational Culture

Perhaps more crucially, Brown and Kelly give guidance on the organizational structure and culture needed to support their techniques. As Kelly says ‘a creative capacity exists and can bloom in everyone, given the right culture to encourage it”. Here are just some of their recommendations:

 Hot teams: The ‘lone genius’ is a myth. Outstanding innovation comes from collaborative, interdisciplinary problem solving. Kelly says the ‘hot team’ is the best vehicle to deliver such solutions – a multi-skilled team, specifically assembled for each project, that works together for the project’s duration. The best results come from teams who self-select by working on projects linked to their own goals and passions.

 Green house building: The optimal working environment for a hot team is face-to-face and non-hierarchal. That allows members to ‘cross pollinate’ (all skills, ages and seniority respectfully mixing in one office) and interact and learn from each other. Brown suggests companies create dedicated space for innovation, whenever possible. No mean feat for those whose structures are based on silo-ed departments!

 A culture of optimism: For innovation to thrive, the culture must allow divergent thinking and wild ideas to thrive. It must tolerate risk-taking and the inevitable failures that come with experimentation. Leaders must give staff permission to experiment and fail. They must champion and promote innovation, and rethink assessment methods to ensure participants are not penalised or marginalised for being innovative.

 find and hold onto innovative talent: Organisations must learn to spot, nurture, and retain internal talent, while recruiting additional ‘T-shaped personalities’ (those with cross-disciplinary skills – both analytical and empathetic).

Creative tools can be adopted by so-called ‘non-creatives’, as the successes of Nike, Kaiser Permanente, P&G, and Ormondale School, to name a few in Brown’s book show.

However, design thinking isn’t without its critics. Robert Verganti (Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano) counters Brown’s demand for human-centred design. He argues that user-centred innovation is dead, and in it’s place design-driven innovation is rising – innovation that creates products, services and experiences that customers ‘do not expect, but that they eventually love’. Design-driven innovation stems not from customer needs, but from the creation of new needs by talented ‘interpreters’. Human-insight led innovation, he argues, is mostly incremental, not radical. That is an area that I must explore further. Stay tuned!






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