At the Innovation Impasse: How Design Thinking Can Inspire Change

Welcome to the age of the innovation impasse,a cul-de-sac of creativity where many global giants of industry are increasingly struggling to find the ideas and inspiration to maintain their value proposition and profitability.

It’s a scary place to be doing business.

Other than the finer financial details that pop up across internal spreadsheets, we are all familiar with the reasons for this horror: with so many companies making the same things, the secret to differentiation is not in the product; with more consumers making healthier, more conscientious choices than ever before, many stalwart brands that once found a place in every household now find themselves on consumer shit lists; with streaming, TiVo and mobile replacing the glow of family TV time, fewer consumers are ever exposed to the ads that once shaped purchase decisions; and with social media making it easy to spread the word, telling others about our good and bad experiences can make or break a brand.

In response to these and other disruptions to the prescriptive, top-down way that most companies have conducted business since the 1950s, the supposed fix-it to such proposition and profit woes is innovation. If only our company could learn to be more innovative, they say, we could develop product and service ideas that would drive meaningful differentiation and exponential growth.

For many such companies, the first step towards becoming more innovative is to implement sweeping title changes across the organization. Believing that if you say it you will do it, the director of marketing becomes the director of marketing innovation and, voila, everything begins falling into place, right? Wrong.

What might have started as a fast one to convince the street that your company has a rejuvenated approach to developing profitable ideas usually digresses into doing business the same way as you always have: the same old market research, segmentation models, packaging tweaks, line extensions and desperation to find a reason to believe. The results, of course, are the same old results.

Once those results kick in, the second step is hiring innovation consultants to do most of the innovation work for you. Here, the hope is that those unencumbered by the same old ways will point the way to new processes and practices that lead to winning ideas and, along the way, provide your team the capabilities to help your organization become innovative.

But it’s not really about having good ideas. Good ideas are like assholes and elbows – most of us have one or two of them. Instead, the challenge lies in successfully applying the good ideas your team might come up with to fit the social and structural DNA of your

company. From helping navigate cross-silo politics of participation and ownership to recognizing, appreciating and designing for the realities of manufacturing and supply chain, any innovation consultancy worth its blended rate is adept at helping you shepherd ideas through your organization. Those that are not are just good at coming up with ideas.

It’s also not really about processes and practices. If you Google “innovation process” or “innovation methodology” you’ll come up with some combination of the process used by any innovation consultancy in the world. Google just a little bit deeper and you will discover all the definitions and instructions for conducting user-centered research, engaging in sensemaking, the value of rapid prototyping and other modules of the innovation work stream.

Applying those definitions and instructions after internet research is probably about as wise as self-diagnosing on WebMD. Plus, there’s the fact that the day-to-day duties of the job make learning and applying new processes or practices yet another set of day-to-day duties on the job. Having consultants teach by doing is an obvious remedy, but be wary of motivations: the goal of a good partner should be to help your team foster innovation independence.

That innovation independence will develop only if organizations embrace what I argue is the most critical component of a culture of innovation: principles.

While there are some pretty mercenary innovation consultancies out there whose bottom line thrives on ideas generated through applying processes and practices alone, those that subscribe to design thinking and its principles continue to lead the way because they accept one simple truth: the success of any innovation is at the mercy of human experience, expectation, behavior and culture.

Here is one simple design thinking principle: we design for people who have real needs, and the best ideas that come out of the innovation pipeline will have been designed to serve those people and their needs. If that sounds like a principle that is too radical for many large companies to swallow, that’s because it is. Hence their failure to truly innovate.

What many such large companies fail to appreciate is that they are filled with people who have their own needs, one of which is to be successful at their job. Design thinking teaches us that when researching and developing ideas we must remain cognizant of the networked connectedness between and needs of all people in a system, including employees.

If a large company takes those first few steps towards adopting a human-centric approach to innovation and includes its employees in those steps, the result can be just what is required in this scary age of doing business: inspiration. When employees, including executives, realize that innovation has a purpose beyond the meaningful differentiation and exponential growth that we all talk about – serving human needs – that inspiration can manifest and be harnessed to begin the most challenging and innovative work required to make a company more innovative: internal transformation.

If you take a human-centric approach to innovation you realize that some of the orthodox business methodologies that have been used to identify opportunities for decades lose value. Of these, none is more inhumane than market research. Market research leads companies to talk about consumers (not people) or, worse yet, targets.

It sequesters us in focus groups to ‘study’ us for actionable insights. It puts us into segments or describes us with personas, both of which reinforce the institutional illusion that there is a real understanding of our lives. And with all the rubbish agency talk of deep dives and 360 degree views, it makes companies feel like due research diligence has been followed. It hasn’t. If you take a human-centric approach to innovation you will energize employees.

My favorite CEO – and she knows who she is – is a true champion of employee energy. Inspired by deep principles and a purpose that speaks to connecting with customers in a real, emotional human way, she has not only achieved fantastic financial results but also inspired her employees to tap into their creative energy and develop innovative ideas that lead her industry.

If you take a human-centric approach to innovation your company will be one step closer to innovation independence. Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management, has a great quote that I use when speaking at executive offsites: “Data is no substitute for intimacy.” What he’s saying is no different from what I am suggesting: if you know people and have a relationship with them, you will know what products and services will best fulfill their human needs and, in the process, meet your business objectives.

If you enjoy the scary sensation of doing business at the innovation impasse, by all means stick to that prescriptive, top-down 1950s business model you are still running. If not, consider how instilling real principles and purpose can inspire your employees and your organization to think better, do better and be better for everyone in the network.

 This article appears in MISC fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue, on newsstands August 28

the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.