Learning from Design Firms to Create the Innovative Organisation

This article from INSEAD shares how the world’s top design firms have innovation down to almost a science. The lessons from these firms can help organisations wanting to be innovative by using design as a catalyst for change and impact.

By observing how many design firms work, I have identified three core organisational capabilities at which they particularly excel, which also comprise the rudiments of any innovation journey: user-centric insighting, deep and diverse ideating, and rapid and cheap iterating.

User-centric insighting: In order to create value in novel ways (the goal of innovating), you must first locate opportunities to do so. Where to start looking is easy to see—with the end-user—but it’s far more difficult to detect and synthesise actionable information within the complexity of the user experience. Customer surveys and focus groups simplify the process, but are often removed from how people authentically respond in the marketplace. Designers, by contrast, prefer observation to interrogation, developing empathy to discern unarticulated, even unconscious, user needs. As Tim Kobe, CEO of design firm Eight, Inc. put it, “We represent the end-user in all the design decisions that take place in these innovation projects.” And that’s why building empathy with the target user is crucial, as Continuum did when working with Procter & Gamble to reinvigorate the Pampers brand. Observing mums and their babies, designers realised that the mothers’ ultimate concern was their infant’s development, not the diaper itself. With that in mind, they devised a line of premium diapers for different developmental stages (Swaddlers, Cruisers, etc.) rather than segmenting by age.

Deep and diverse ideating: Designers generate heaps of new ideas based on user insights. This phase is where they unleash their creativity, coming up with as many and as distinct potential solutions as possible before putting much thought into implementation. These preliminary solutions are the product of an organisational process that deliberately cultivates a broad range of perspectives. Far from avoiding eccentric and exceptional voices, design firms seek them out and encourage their contributions within an atmosphere of freedom of thought and playfulness. Playfulness is so important at IDEO that they have created a Toy Lab where designers conceive and test out some of their creations by playing with kids as young as 18 months.

Rapid and cheap iterating: Designers understand that the creative flurry of the ideation phase can take them only so far. They are quick to make ideas concrete and not shy to declare them failures when they don’t live up to expectations. For designers, failures are not negative events but learning experiences. Producing fast and cheap dummy versions to test out concepts means that even when the experiments flop, it’s still a win-win. Singapore-based multidisciplinary design consultancy Awaken Group makes “low-resolution prototypes” of spaces using stacked cardboard boxes to represent walls. That way, alterations can be made to the design in a matter of moments as the client walks through the demo space.

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