On Design Thinking, Foresight and a Framework for Leading Innovation

Paradise Lost and Why We Need Innovation

The Camp Fire in Paradise California was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California to date—burning 6,453 homes and killing 29 people.

Wildfires, flooding, tropical storms, and droughts will become more common because of human-caused climate change. We discovered that burning fossil fuels could power the industrial revolution—pulling billions out of poverty. Now, this innovation is threatening humanity. Innovations have consequences.

As Bill McKibben says in Falter, “We’ve been expanding the board on which humanity plays its game. For the first time since the dawn of humanity many millions of years ago, we’re shrinking the game board.”

We’re Solving the Wrong Problems

Innovation can be thought of like a wheel. Endlessly spinning, pulling in unmet needs and pushing out solutions to meet them. Innovation has been defined in many ways, from creative destruction to disruption.

Innovation has three components; a problem, a solution, and implementation. Failed innovations like New CokeGoogle+, and Juicero each miss a different part. Innovations address problems of vastly different scopes. To explain, let’s look at the wet towel on a stick that makes Proctor & Gamble $500 million a year.

As Roger Martin explains in Playing to Win, Proctor & Gamble perpetually hunts for the next billion-dollar brand. In their search, they realized that conventional mops get messy and customers spend time cleaning them. Thus, the Swiffer WetJet was born whose unique dual-nozzle sprayer makes some people’s lives marginally better. The Swiffer WetJet is an innovation. It’s an effective, implemented solution to a problem people have.

However, is this the sort of innovation Proctor & Gamble’s 95,000 employees and $66 billion value should focus on?

I believe innovation is the solution to the significant global challenges we’re facing—like climate change, extreme poverty, global pandemic, and financial collapse. However, these problems have scopes far beyond what we, as individuals, can address. Our organizations must innovate to address them, and they must do so now. I call this approach Innovation Thinking.

To understand why organizations are failing to meet the demands of our times, let’s explore the dominant innovation process in business today.

Image result for design thinking d.school

Design Thinking a Better Coat Hanger

Imagine a typical coat hanger. It’s made of wire, wood, or plastic. It’s shaped like a person’s shoulders. You hang garments with it. The coat hanger is broken.

Well, not really. However, typical coat hangers damage delicate or heavier fabrics. They take up large amounts of retail floor space. We’re going to design think a better hanger.

We start by interviewing some store owners, customers, and people with closets. We observe hanger manufacturers and designers and come to understand that hangers made of different materials perform differently. That hangers are mostly for display. We define our opportunity as, “how might we develop a display technique between a coat hanger and folding?”

We ideate different solutions. Maybe magnets, or draping the clothes. We settle on two ideas— a detachable magnet, and a hanger that drapes clothes. Using some supplies from a hardware store, we build rough prototypes. Each idea has some merit, but together they’re perfect. We bring our prototype to our stakeholders—and they love it! We name our product Magnet Hook™.

Design thinking is an excellent approach to simple problems like a new coat hanger. It can even address meaningful problems as Asili found combatting child mortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, even when used on problems worth solving, it’s still held back by some severe limitations.

Innovation is Dead, Long Live Innovation

As Natasha Jen discusses, design thinking isn’t being used to address significant problems by large organizations.

There are a few reasons why:

  1. First, design thinking is just a process—it’s a way of developing an effective solution to a problem people have. When organizations believe their sole goal is developing new offerings to outcompete rival firms, it’s no surprise design thinking becomes another tool for consumer goods.
  2. Second, organizational structures are built around innovating simple, profitable problems—which currently ocean plastics are not. Metrics, incentives, project management, etc. would have to adjust to the scope, complexity, and value derived from global challenges.
  3. Finally, when organizations innovate, they do so with individual teams, or at best in a department. In most organizations, the majority of employees are engaged in supporting the status quo. True innovation thinking requires an organization-wide embrace of human-centeredness, resilience building, and co-creation.

To truly innovate, we need to shift the needle towards innovative organizations. Innovative organizations will find that significant market opportunity is in emerging markets and meaningfully addressing a global audience’s challenges. They’ll find their employees are far more productive when they’re doing meaningful work and they’ll find that rather than needing defined processes like design thinking that creating stakeholder value will become integral to the way employees do their jobs.

Value Constellations and Innovating Innovation

A value constellation is the value that’s derived from the diverse ecosystem of stakeholders that envelop an organization. To understand how to design value constellations more effectively and thus drive more change overall. I analyzed 250+ innovation approaches to try and understand what an aggregate approach to creating change might look like. An innovation approach can be anything that helps people to address challenges. This could mean designing a new policy, moving an existing solution to a new situation, or even team dynamics that impact those doing the innovation.

From this data table, I synthesized six universal ways of approaching innovation. I call these innovation domains.

The domains begin with human influence and system, which combine to form our present state. From our present state, there is a range of potential futures that could happen and some of those futures which we prefer, which we’ll call a goal. To bridge our present state and desired future state, there’s a two-step process of identifying the gap and then building a solution to address it.

Every innovation approach addresses one of these domains. For example, scenario writing explores how trends intersect to form potential futures. Or the Business Model Canvas frames a business to isolate problem areas or intervention points.

Complex problems can take root in any of these six innovation domains. Complex problem-solving has five phases, which function similarly to exploring an unfamiliar island.

At the intersection of each innovation domain and phase of the complex problem-solving process, I’ve mapped an innovation approach that best fits, resulting in the Innovation Design Matrix.

The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It

The Innovation Design Matrix suggests the diverse variety of approaches there are to address innovation. However, as shown by design thinking, the issue comes from the organization addressing innovation rather than the nature of the problem itself. Take the infamous Burning Platform letter Nokia’s CEO published in 2011. Stephen Elop anticipated a revenue freefall as iPhone sales surpassed Nokia’s and wanted to inspire his employees to respond. The letter, while beautifully written, failed. Nokia’s revenue would drop by 90% from $60 billion to $6 billion by 2014, a year after Elop was demoted following Microsoft’s acquisition.

Nokia recognized that they had a significant problem in front of them. Like Kodak, Xerox, and Blockbuster—Nokia was faced with a challenge. Innovate or perish. Some, like Blockbuster, burn quickly. Others, like Xerox, shamble along for many years before an acquisition or bankruptcy.

However, as Nokia discovered, innovation isn’t easy, especially when it’s a matter of billions of dollars and 130,000 employees. There are numerous processes, structures and people that are involved, and it’s not as simple as hiring strategy consultants. Design thinking also isn’t enough. It requires an organization-wide embrace of innovation.

To build that model for organization-wide innovation, I teased out the various facets of the organization each innovation approach tried to address, which I call innovation levers. Each can be addressed to influence the organization’s capacity for innovation. These range from the way the organization operates, to the power dynamics of senior leaders. Each innovation lever is a way of influencing the organization’s capacity to innovate.

It’s not as simple as new products, it can be a manager recognizing that people don’t feel secure failing, so they choose to avoid risks. It’s absolutely innovation if they address that problem and it’s even better if their learning flows to other parts of the organization.

The twelve innovation levers below each have questions below them. Use them to think about your organization. You may uncover some focus areas for building innovation thinking. Innovation thinking is a mindset. One of recognizing problems, finding solutions, and implementing them.

We’re all innovators, and we can all use these levers to increase the capacity of ourselves, those around us, and our organizations to innovate and address the significant challenges we face.

A Blank Innovation Design Canvas Has Unlimited Possibilities

I love the Business Model Canvas because it gives people a way of sharing their work on a business. Likewise, I believe that becoming an innovative organization requires collaboration and buy-in. As Intel’s Tony Salvador said, “Innovation is violence.”

That’s why I’ve designed a tool to make it as easy as possible to do a collaborative diagnostic of your organization. The Innovation Design Canvas is designed to prompt meaningful conversation. It gives you a shared language to talk about the challenges you’re facing before they become critical.

My hope is that if Nokia had a tool like this, they might have seen the iPhone coming. Or Blockbuster could have seen they were about facilitating entertainment. Perhaps BlackBerry could have recognized by mapping out their business model that the user experience wasn’t represented.

We’re All Innovators, and We Have a Responsibility

You solve problems every day. You’re an innovator. Take this gift you’ve been given and bring it to your organization’s challenges. Don’t take the daily noise for granted—problems at the heart of innovation like culture, collaboration, and information flow are rarely thought of and changed even less. Be the changemaker whose brave enough to raise your voice and say this is broken.

Further, our world is being put under a great deal of stress. Climate change, emerging technologies, and urban density are challenging our way of life.

We need to both reduce our footprint and provide a similar quality of life to those who are leaving extreme poverty. We need to innovate. It’s making sense of the complexity we face in addressing these problems. Innovation changes lives.


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