If only Einstein had lived 400 years earlier, he would have discovered the theory of relatively centuries sooner and science would be even more advanced than it is now.
The logic of that statement is alluring, but it’s not accurate. The reason is because Einstein, like all of us, was a product of his environment and his environment comprised the centuries of scientific knowledge on which his work was founded, regular contact with peers, constant challenge and shared insight. One could argue that Einstein could only express his genius because of the era within which he lived.
The recent history of scientific breakthroughs consistently reveals the same pattern. Four astronomers independently discovered and defined sun spots in the 17th century. Two scientists developed forerunners to the electric battery in the 18th. In the 19th, natural selection and genetic mutation had a number of scientists vying for the breakthrough before Darwin won the race. And finally, in the 20th, Einstein only just beat David Hilbert to his most famous theory.
In each case the background context of knowledge, competition, collaboration and challenge all combined to bring out the very best in humankind’s ability to innovate.
To successfully pursue innovation therefore, we must overcome the misconception that innovation emerges from the ether, as a somehow mystical combination of contemplation and genius. It is not something which happens to people, rather it is something people do. Singer–songwriters might talk regularly about a melody or a riff coming upon them or flowing through them, but innovators talk of the same phenomenon much more rarely, and even when they do there is often an identifiable trigger or context.
In short, innovation is a deliberate process.
When the context and environment is right for innovation, it thrives. If we wish to pursue innovation, we define the content and environment within which innovation thrives, and create them.
The process of deliberate innovation explores these characteristics through critical questioning as follows:
- What if we could observe the characteristics of innovation over time and bake them in to a process?
- What if we could study the key reasons why innovation flattens or fails within organisations and mitigate risk as part of process?
- What if we could set up project rhythms and approaches which enabled not just action–driven phases for outputs, but contemplative phases where no output was expected or necessary?
- What if we could create an environment where adults can think and create freely and without judgement, like we used to do when we were children, before creativity was conditioned out of us?
- What if we could deeply understand our customers pain with the status quo and marry that up with changes and advances in technology and markets to marry up solutions with novelty and invention?
The conclusion of these questions is the process and mindset of design thinking.
Design thinking – from studio to boardroom
Unsurprisingly, design thinking has for decades been a design practice however its recent explosion as a business practise reflects the reality that innovation is much more about deliberate process than it is about unintentional inspiration.
Like much new thinking in the world of UX and design thinking there is little new about it.
As far back as 1940 James Webb Young, an American advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson and first chairman of The Advertising Council, wrote a book called ‘A technique for producing ideas‘. He was inspired to write the book by a junior colleague who remarked that Young regularly came up with great ideas and the young ambitious employee wanted to know if he could share any secrets so he too might think up great ideas.
At first Young thought it was a stupid question and a preposterous concept that somehow creativity could be delivered by writ, but as he reflected on it he realised that for years he had been originating ideas in a specific way but had never stopped to consider his process, which by now had become intrinsic to how he carried out his role. When he paused to think, he realised that his eureka moments were part of a proven five–step process:
- Gather material – both specific and general, indexing and categorising it as you go
- Think and make connections – between all of the material that you have gathered exploring even obtuse possibilities
- Relax – go and do something that’s not work – watch a movie, ride your bike, go for a walk
- Eureka moments – there will be more than one – as ideas emerge write them all down
- Rework – fine tune, combine ideas, expand and contract, filter out bad ideas, until the leading innovations emerge
Many of the concepts embedded into design thinking, such as separating the problem space and solution space, allowing for multiple ideas, starting with research and insights, iterating and honing have their genesis in Young’s book. Importantly too, design thinking has evolved to recognise that innovation isn’t simply a production line process, it is also a culture and mindset.
Making good decisions by avoiding terrible decisions
This may seem like a trivial or pedantic point, however as a quick look on Google will illustrate there are many design thinking processes which can lead to good outcomes, but there is only one design thinking mindset. A look at the Stanford d.school design thinking process will highlight the key concepts of the most popular methods:
- Empathise – understand the problem to be solved deeply, by observing it and using research methods such as interviews and shadowing it to absorb it
- Define – describe what you observe, with a focus on visual outputs outlining user journeys, personas, challenges, pain points and decisions, seeking to identify common or big problems
- Ideate – using some of Webb Young’s techniques, explore a full range of potential solutions for the problem defined
- Prototype – represent the solution in a testable manner, keeping it simply, failing fast, iterating quickly and improving regularly
- Test – build out a high–fidelity representation of the solution for further testing and iteration
Done right, design thinking mitigates against the three most common reasons that solutions fail to reach their fullest potential.
- The problem being solved is misdiagnosed, typically because of incorrect assumptions and unchallenged bias.
- The solution is too narrowly conceived, causing incremental improvements and not disruption or competitive advantage.
- The solution is too blunt, misaligned with user desire and thus lacking nuance and missing opportunities to delight.
The importance of culture and mindset
It is for this reason that culture and mindset is the beating heart of innovation. For teams to innovate they must sign up to the following creed:
- We will resist groupthink
- We will never say “we’ve always done it this way”
- We understand customers deepest needs are often unspoken
- We will avoid incorrect assumptions
- If we fail we will fail cheap, early and forward
- We will create physical safe space conducive to emotional safety and creativity
- We will speak with candour and honesty
- We are curious
- We will be courageous enough to say things which may be perceived as stupid or contrary to accepted wisdom
- We are all working to and bound by an agreed process and timescale
This framework has underpinned business model innovation for physical products (such as Rolls Royce charging per mile for their engines) and for software (such as the software–as–a–service revolution). It has led to product innovation such as Heinz providing tomato ketchup in an upside–down squeezable container rather than a bottle. And it has helped designers conceive entirely new products which improve the lives of millions of people with products such as the Embrace incubator which has saved the lives of over 350,000 babies in the world’s poorest regions.
Design thinking allows us to see the world as it really is and to use the clarity this provides to make it better.
It isn’t ideas which drive innovation, but rather insights.