In this BDI opinion piece, Joss Newberry, Managing Director of , articulates the difficulties industrial designers face in persuading organisations that design, and in particular strategic design, can be used effectively to bring about the changes necessary to drive innovation and describes the approach Opius has adopted to overcome them.
has always been limited by its commissioner’s sensibilities, only truly finding its scope when visions are matched. The same is true for strategic design, the success of which is determined by the commissioner’s ability to unlock its mind and cleanse itself of preconceived expectations – essentially opening the way for new and processes. Unfortunately, few organisations are capable of doing this.
Whereas design may be readily commissioned for incremental change, real, disruptive , whether for new products, business models or services, demands a broader and deeper engagement that can only be delivered through what we call design. Failure to establish this deeper engagement has been the stumbling block for many innovation initiatives.
The question then is business ready for disruptive innovation?
‘All businesses rate innovation as a key driver’ (IBM 2007) and ‘product innovation has become the clearest route to superior financial performance’ (Accenture Product Development Mastery 2009), whilst highlighting the importance of innovation has spread to business school rhetoric and is now standard fare in the Chairman’s statement in any Annual Report.
Business simply loves the idea of innovation but, in general, does not understand it sufficiently to enable it. A business will find it immensely difficult to absorb an innovation proposition whereas it can readily absorb a proposition for change from a management consultant, for example. This is because innovation demands an intellect that is as different to management consultancy as right is to left brain thinking. Business is simply not set up for innovation, at least once it has survived its early, phase.
The obvious conclusion is that the self-evident value of innovation is spurned by an engrained orthodoxy of thought that fails to see the logic of its own failings. In being transformed by disruption the risk of failure of such orthodoxy becomes only too apparent. Businesses, in general, are well practised in both framing the business in their own terms and skilled in the analysis of data towards the derivation of the logical best solution.
What design (design thinking) is good at is taking a flexible approach to reframing the problem and subsequently directing the effort towards resolving constraints and conflict with an open mind on the ultimate solution. Our holistic, people-centric, creative approach we argue is better placed to find the best solution and particularly so if that solution is highly innovative.
If design, and specifically strategic design, is to make headway beyond the few (mostly larger) companies who ‘get’ it, it must acknowledge a business’ predisposition to this ‘business’ way of thinking and measure the challenge it faces in changing the embedded mindset and process. Even in businesses signed up to the gatekeepers to the innovation portals too often expect an external innovation to be pre-packaged to neatly fit into their ‘pigeon hole’ – the size of which making a mockery or ‘open’ innovation..
Open innovation can only work when the challenge has been properly framed and understood by both parties. Thereafter, life becomes much more straightforward.
The key to innovation, in my mind, lies in the framing of the challenge. In design consultancy terms this is embodied in the Design Brief, the document that pre-determines the success of any creative endeavour. In my business this collaborative process is prosaically called stage 0, the zeroth stage that comes before stage 1 Concept design, etc.
It took my design business nearly 10 years to discover the disconnect between our insatiable desire to create breakthrough and the limited amount of innovation emerging in the products we designed was determined by the design brief we originally received.
However much we tried to innovate and re-frame the problem we found it an uphill task to significantly redefine the brief. For us, this was the point at which we had to change our own frame of reference to approaching each design opportunity with a mindset that demanded collaborative work and mutual agreement on the design brief as a precondition to further design activity. Stage 0 was invented to cover all the observational, imaginative, research, analytical and communications work necessary to bring this about. This, fundamentally, is what strategic design means to us.
In contrast to the typical conventional processes of our clients we uncover innovation opportunities in observing human behaviour, questioning preconceptions and perceived constraints, imagining different customers, measuring differently, thinking divergently, embracing chaos and finding quick methods to evaluate uncertainties, all within a holistic, systems approach. All of this is alien to business and business schools, unsurprisingly.
The challenge we face then is one of changing hearts and minds, questioning old Cartesian process with New World ideas. Unwittingly, we have the role of change agents, arguing that a looser process and embracement of chaos and uncertainty is the path to innovation and new . The consequences of innovation processes are as unthinkable as a non-flat Earth.
There are certainly positive forces pushing in the same direction, not least Tim Brown, of IDEO, the most vocal advocate of design thinking who argues for human focus, systems thinking and ; and the World Economic Forum who, in 2009, laid down the 6 tenets of design thinking as Clarity, Inspiration, Transformation, Participation, Context and .
All very compelling in a seminar, but how digestible by those companies needing to change?
Reading between the lines, this call for action demands critical change to culture, leadership, environment and – any of which would represent a major challenge for a specialist team. The design thinking ‘movement’ nevertheless has drawn a great deal of attention, in the USA in particular, generating energetic on its meaning and application. Interesting though that the issues it grapples with are identical to the ones strategic designers face in promoting their own approach to innovation.
Whether we see ourselves as designers bent on disruptive innovation or disciples of design thinking, we are participants in a business evolution and, potentially, significant agents of change. Will, I wonder, future product and service businesses look back and wonder why it took them so long to ‘get’ it, why they did not make more effort to understand; why companies such as and Virgin were grabbing huge market share? Will they count the cost of pursuing what they perceived to be the path of least risk? With or without our involvement this evolution will take place, simply because market forces will allow the better businesses to thrive, whilst those that stick with 20th century business school dogma will slowly fade.
If we are to act as agents of change the problem we must face is one of corporate behaviour. Therefore the tools we must refine are those that have the potential to change such behaviour. First-hand innovation may be the most powerful tool, i.e. learn by doing it, but before this can happen I’d suggest a number of influences must already be in place.
Business organisms will follow patterns of behaviour, but again, how prevalent must reporting of new behaviours be for others to take notice? Reasoned action will anticipate the consequences of following a particular behaviour and so, logically, the larger and greater the evidence of successful behaviour by others will shape intention and ultimately behavioural change.
This is not a tight thesis – more an observation of the gap between typical corporate behaviour and the behaviour appropriate to the adoption of principles promoted by strategic design and design thinking.
The debate should continue. The question I would ask is what is it that influences corporate action that might become a useful driver of change? Certainly competitor, certainly fear of failure, certainly a conviction that business objectives cannot be met with existing structure and process and certainly engendering a more entrepreneurial spirit (though this itself needs a driver).
It goes without saying that is the key to winning hearts and minds, but before we can do this we need to establish the most effective drivers of change. I therefore invite opinions on what these drivers might be.
Contact: Joss Newberry, MD, Opius Design
+44 (0)20 8374 4528, ,
· Illustrated selections of BDI’s news stories and events are emailed direct to subscribers. For a free subscription, send a blank email with “Subscribe to BDI Broadcasts” in the subject line to