Many companies attempt to manage innovation in the same way they handle other business processes: systematically and broken down into neat, logical stages. But as product designer and author Guido Stompff argues, true innovation tends to be the accidental outcome of a process of trying out new things. He advocates adopting a new approach called ‘design thinking’ – innovation through experimentation.
According to Stompff, whose 2012 PhD research focused on how organisations manage innovation, groundbreaking ideas are never conceived in advance, but rather come about ‘somewhere along the way’. Teams learn by creating, by coming up with new things and trying them out – encountering any number of surprises and setbacks as they progress. ‘And if they’re lucky, they’ll achieve a breakthrough every now and then, like when Fleming discovered penicillin after finding a mould had developed on his culture plate. Some people might dismiss this sort of trial-and-error experimentation as “mucking about”, but they’re unaware that this has always been how groundbreaking ideas are born,’ Stompff explains.
He notes that innovation is something that, while it’s on the agenda of virtually every organisation, in many cases rarely or never gets off the ground. Stompff: ‘That’s hardly surprising, as innovation tends to be managed the same way as any other business process. Ask a manager to come up with a plan for something new, and you’ll see that 30 percent of the time will be allotted to analysis; 30 to 40 percent to implementation; 10 percent to testing, and 10 to 20 percent will be devoted to project management and decision-making. But those kinds of timelines are based on a fundamental misconception – namely, that you need to think before you “do”, that you have to come up with a plan first and implement it second. In other words: look before you leap. Well, when it comes to innovation it’s exactly the other way around: you need to leap before you look!’
This is not to say, Stompff is sure to emphasise, that the type of systematic and methodical approach described above is by definition fruitless – it’s just that it cannot qualify as ‘true’ innovation. ‘If that’s the way you go about things, only the more conservative, conventional ideas ever really stand a chance: improving an existing product, say, or optimising a business process. Our need to control things and plan out everything in detail ahead of time is the death knell for any kind of true innovation.’
So those keen to discover the ‘new new thing’ need to start rethinking the approach to innovation in their organisations. In one method currently gaining popularity, known as ‘design thinking’, a multidisciplinary team is given the deliberately vague assignment of developing something by a specific deadline which ‘appeals to the client, even though they had no idea that was what they were looking for’, as Stompff puts it. ‘Don’t try to figure out all the answers in advance – it’s about letting your creativity run wild.’
While the assignment may be vague, ‘design thinking’ is a serious methodology based on a fixed set of techniques, including framing the problem, co-creation and visualisation. Stompff: ‘Precisely because you’re dealing with so many uncertainties, design thinking starts with actively exploring a number of “frames”. A frame informs how we look at the world around us, how we approach a problem and what solutions we end up finding. Most managers and organisations are unaware of the frames they’re using. By developing and exploring alternative frames, you learn that there’s more than just one reality – that’s how fresh, out-of-the-box solutions come about.’
One example of a fixed frame is the way many high-tech companies approach the problem of the current shortage in the labour market: that is, as a competition that has them trying to entice workers through extrinsic motivation. Stompff: ‘A lot of companies will try to lure people through flashy job ads and by making a lot of noise on social media, as well as hiring head hunters and promising people “excellent” benefits. The thing is, they don’t consider any alternative frames, such as creating a pool of job applicants, with companies referring on rejected job candidates to other firms. Or, say, a kind of buddy system where potential foreign candidates are matched with a local professional with a similar background, so it takes less time to find a good fit.’
The next step is to develop multiple frames into a set of potential new products or services, which are then presented to the client with the question: what if we did things this way? Stompff: ‘It’s a process known as “co-creation”: you listen to the feedback you receive from the client and respond accordingly, so you can refine and improve new ideas. The essence of co-creation is that two or more people come up with an idea that they wouldn’t have conceived of individually.’
The trick, he explains, is to then move on to the visualisation and/or prototype process as soon as possible. ‘A lot of organisations, once they’ve got their new idea, start setting up all kinds of discussion groups to work out all the details. Before you know it, you’ve got dozens of people holding all sorts of meetings to discuss requirements, needs and priorities – and that is sure to nip just about any new idea in the bud. Design thinking involves putting something together somewhat haphazardly (“quick and dirty,” if you will) and showing what it will look like so that virtually no explanation is needed. This way you make sure that everyone – including team members, stakeholders and potential users – is clear on “what’s new and how it works”.’
Stompff has found that many organisations need to get used to design thinking as a methodology, as it forces them to do things differently: ‘It really only works when the members of the team all work together in the same physical space, so they can see what the others are doing and everything is out in the open. A clean desk policy is an absolute no-no, even if that means you’ve got dirty coffee mugs strewn about all over the place. Team members should feel free to pin schedules and artist’s impressions and so on to the wall so that everyone can see the state of play at a glance. You also need to steer clear of interim reports, traffic lights, and more such nonsense. And if you’ve got a lot riding on the decisions you’re making: be sure to do some trial runs. Test regularly, over an extended period of time, and start early. And yes, there’s always time for testing, even in the midst of a corporate reorganisation. You could, for example, try out a new system within just one department at first.’
Design thinking is steadily gaining traction in the corporate world, but Stompff says people forget all too often that it’s a philosophy rather than a trick you can simply apply at random. ‘It’s called design thinking for a reason. You can’t just decide to give design thinking a shot on Friday, only to revert back to conventional thinking by Tuesday. Design thinking is a process of exploration that involves coming up with something new, something you didn’t know you were going to end up making when you first started. It’s perfect for situations in which a conventional approach falls short and you need fresh new ways of thinking. Design thinking is sure to generate a wealth of new, high-potential ideas. But you’re never going to achieve that in just one workshop, and not even in just one month. If you want to be innovative, you need to embrace the explorative process of design thinking and make the word “experiment” part of every plan.’
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