How to make Design Thinking part of the innovation drill

The myth of creative genius is resilient. We believe that great ideas pop fully formed out of brilliant minds, in feats of imagination well beyond the abilities of mere mortals. But Design Thinking is neither a sudden breakthrough nor the lightning strike of genius; it is the result of hard work augmented by a creative human-centred discovery process, followed by iterative cycles of prototyping, testing, and refinement.

The design process is best described metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a predefined series of orderly steps. The spaces demarcate different sorts of related activities that together form the continuum of innovation. Design thinking can feel chaotic to those experiencing it for the first time. But over the life of a project participants come to see that the process makes sense and achieves results, even though its architecture differs from the linear, milestone-based processes typical of other kinds of business activities.

Design projects must ultimately pass through three spaces. These include “inspiration”, for the circumstances (be they a problem, an opportunity, or both) that motivate the search for solutions; “ideation”, for the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas that may lead to solutions; and “implementation”, for the charting of a path to market. Projects will loop back through these spaces – particularly the first two – more than once as ideas are refined and new directions taken.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review in June, 2008, Tim Brown of IDEO describes what is needed to make Design Thinking part of the innovation drill.

  • Begin at the beginning. Involve design thinkers at the very start of the innovation process, before any direction has been set. Design thinking will help you explore more ideas more quickly than you could otherwise.
  • Take a human-centred approach. Along with business and technology considerations, innovation should factor in human behaviour, needs, and preferences. Human-centred design thinking – especially when it includes research based on direct observation – will capture unexpected insights and produce innovation that more precisely reflects what consumers want.
  • Try early and often. Create an expectation of rapid experimentation and prototyping. Encourage teams to create a prototype in the first week of a project. Measure progress with a metric such as average time to first prototype or number of consumers exposed to prototypes during the life of a program.
  • Seek outside help. Expand the innovation ecosystem by looking for opportunities to co-create with customers and consumers. Exploit social networks to enlarge the effective scale of your innovation team.
  • Blend big and small projects. Manage a portfolio of innovation that stretches from shorter-term incremental ideas to longer-term revolutionary ones. Expect business units to drive and fund incremental innovation, but be willing to initiate revolutionary innovation from the top.
  • Budget to the pace of innovation. Design thinking happens quickly, yet the route to market can be unpredictable. Don’t constrain the pace at which you can innovate by relying on cumbersome budgeting cycles. Be prepared to rethink your funding approach as projects proceed and teams learn more about opportunities.
  • Find talent any way you can. Look to hire from interdisciplinary programs like the Institute of Design at Stanford, progressive business schools like Rotman in Toronto and the Human-Computer Interaction and Digital Anthropology courses at UCL in London. People with more conventional design backgrounds can push solutions far beyond your expectations. You may even be able to train non-designers with the right attributes to excel in design-thinking roles.
  • Design for the cycle. In many businesses people move every 12 to 18 months. But design projects may take longer than that to get from day one through implementation. Plan assignments so that design thinkers go from inspiration to ideation to implementation. Experiencing the full cycle builds better judgment and creates great long-term benefits for the organisation.

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