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Innovation: Mission Impossible?

Lately most of the articles that I read theorize how innovation methodologies and especially design thinking are either the absolute way to go or don’t work at all. Authors use pathos as the primary persuasion technique for the audience and end up with a simple conclusion — design thinking is either panacea or syphilis.

There are of course some excellent examples of real war stories, like the latest This is Service Design Doing book and the This Is Design website. They write about getting things done and go deeper into what worked and what didn’t, and why. Inspired by them and other good examples, I’d like to share what I have learned by applying design thinking with various teams in the last four years.

I started by asking myself a simple question — What value did we create and did we “produce innovation” at the end? To answer the question I reviewed my work as facilitator from the last four years and I mapped out the types of companies and projects I have worked with and the results achieved. In reviewing the documentation I identified five things that were repeatedly identified as a benefit by the teams I worked with and their management. All of this is presented below in short form.

I have mostly worked with organizations that do not have a track record in creating breakthrough innovations. The teams I have facilitated were mainly based in CEE and were mostly from multinational corporations in the banking, telco, and logistics sector. They were for the better part interested in adopting new technologies, digitizing their workplaces, transforming their retail networks, acquiring more clients and retaining existing ones. They were moderately tech savvy. Linear project life cycles were the norm prior to starting work in design sprints.

The results from the the design sprints with these teams were validated concepts and blueprints, which the companies implemented afterwards. These concepts and blueprints were almost exclusively about improved internal processes and better customer experiences on websites, in apps and in the shops. The innovation was about new ways to engage customers throughout the customer life cycle — mainly through new technology, better service or different business model. None of the projects was about breakthrough innovation, yet the results were considered innovative in the context of the companies and the following benefits were highlighted.

Demystifying innovation

One of the key benefits is that through the work on design sprints, teams created a common language and shared understanding around the innovation topic. They felt on the same page about what innovation is in their context — is it about redesigning their services from a customer perspective, is it about integrating new technologies in the shops or is it about finding creative marketing approaches.

Building internal capabilities

Through the work on design sprints, the teams also said they got easy to use “formulas” e.g. for how to do research and reframe the task they are working on or how to redesign an existing service or how to kickstart and work efficiently on a project with multiple stakeholders. These were all considered an enhancement to the way they typically run projects.

Improving design briefs for external vendors

Another aspect that was often mentioned was the benefit of the testing. Most teams admit that they would have spent lots of money on an external vendor procured to redesign their website, create a new promo video for a new service, or a new design for their shop without getting the desired outcome. Making low-fidelity prototypes helped them refine their own ideas and at the end draft more precise and elaborate briefs to the vendors doing the final production.

Making time for innovation

Maybe one of the most prominent benefits that was observed by teams is that design sprints forced them to find time for innovation projects. Design sprints gave them pace but also created space for innovation in the middle of their BAU (business as usual) activities. Many managers said this with different words, but one of them said it best during a recent meeting “All the innovation we created in the last two years” comes from the two months we worked with you in 2016.”

Seeing the CEO perspective

One of the benefits that was highlighted by many of the managers was that the work on design sprints and the deliberate attention to customer needs, new technologies and business logic, turned the employees attention into topics that are usually dealt with by C-level management. This helped close the chasm between employees and leadership.

The work with each company is very different. To a facilitator each project and each team is special. As a facilitator you know that your role is to help the team. To do so with some teams you go by the book of design thinking, with others you apply certain principles or even individual methods and with others you might combine methodologies. But you always try to help them go deeper in their understanding of the problem, see points of view they haven’t thought of, consider multiple opportunities and run more and smarter experiments. This is a privileged role that gives you the feeling of value creation every time.

But what happens if you remove the attachment to individual projects and teams, and look at the patterns of four years of work? In my case, it made me reflect not only on whether we “produced innovation”, but also what type of innovation did we produce and what were the factors that lead to it. Looking at the body of work I come to the conclusion that innovation is much more a function of the project team and the team’s resources, the team’s definition of innovation, their main goal and the leadership and facilitator’s support they get rather than the innovation methodology used. Which makes me think once again that the discourse in our innovation community should be around these topics rather than the inducting or denouncing of certain methodologies. If you have analysed your own war stories, please share in the comments.

Elina Zheleva is a Design Thinking Evangelist trained at the HPI School of Design Thinking and Stanford She travels the world and works with organizations to help them transform into more customer-centred and innovative workplaces. She is the co-founder of ReFacilitate — a company dedicated to helping organizations build internal innovation capabilities.

We founded ReFacilitate on the belief that innovation trainings alone don’t work and we wanted to change this by providing affordable, yet experienced on-site facilitators to companies who are serious about innovation. If you believe in this too, we should talk.