The Six Follies that Hinder Innovation

Innovation by Boegh on Flickr

Some time ago I wrote an article — The Two-step Design Thinking Process, in which I stripped design thinking down to two steps — understand and act. I agree, it’s an impromptu, an oversimplified explanation of design thinking, an imperfect account of what we do to solve wicked problems and innovate, but it’s common sense and that’s what design thinking is. It’s just that some people and organizations have lost it.

This is how common sense applied to developing innovative, yet desirable solutions looks like:

Iteration 1:

  • Understand — stakeholders, user, problem.
  • Act — do something, it doesn’t have to be perfect, imperfect is good, this is version 1 — put it to the test!

Iteration 2:

  • Understand — what works and what doesn’t, what delights, what confuses, what is utterly irritating, what can inspire version 2, who can help you?
  • Act — do something, imperfect version 2, test, collect data!

Iteration 3:

  • Understand — what you need to improve, change or throw away completely.
  • Act — just do it!

Repeat until you see clear signs of failure or unclear signs of success. I call this the fail or scale test. It’s a thin line, but if you judge you’re onto something then it might be time to understand scale i.e. production, market, trends, business model and act.

It’s common sense, right? The problem is that it’s not common practice.

Based on my research and work at, here are the six typical mistakes that people and organizations make and thus fail to innovate.

  1. Not invested in understanding

Not invested in understanding is just another way of saying that some of us have a natural inclination towards acting i.e. building and rebuilding solutions. These would be usually, but not always, people and companies with technical background and exceptional tech talent (e.g. IT, telecoms) who let themselves be led by their industry knowledge and “a great idea”.

This is not necessarily bad, unless we become blinded by love and we don’t put our great idea enough to test, or when we ignore results that require us to change the course. The real downside, however, is that by not being interested in understanding or not interested in observing, talking to and looking through the lense of users, we’re closing the door for a lot of hidden, yet real problems and opportunities.

2. Narrow understanding

Narrow understanding means simply not doing enough research to understand our user, the various stakeholders and all facets of the problem. The reason for this might be limited budget, but also lack of understanding on how to design a proper user research plan and/or analyse the results from such.

3. Literal understanding

Literal understanding is related to how well we scope the problem. Are we building a new digital bracelet for joggers or are we improving the jogging experience? Most companies and people choose the first option. It’s safer. But safer, literally defined problems will be literally understood and will only lead to plain results. To be able to define a problem that has the right scope, but also inspires to look for innovative solutions, we need to stimulate abstract understanding and imagination in ourselves and in our teams.

4. Act too late

Act too late means over-focusing on understanding and not moving fast enough to version 1 and its successors. This is typical for big risk-averse organizations (e.g. banks, public institutions). Remember imperfect version 1 tested with a focus group is always better than “perfect” version 1 tested with the real market. And by the way we can never act too early given we are in an iterative process.

5. Act too slow

Act too slow means the internal organisational processes and structures have not been made for innovation. They have been made for efficiency and control of the output, hence the silos, job descriptions, product briefs and reports.

Innovation, however, needs speed. And speed in organisations comes from freedom and serendipity. This doesn’t mean organisations have to abandon all order, but simply to make space for a different way of working.

6. Imposed narrow scoping

This is somewhat related to number 3 — literal understanding or narrow problem scoping, which happens when problems are too literally defined to spur innovation. Imposed narrow scoping happens when we need to act on a well defined problem, but we’re not open to look for a wide possibility of solutions or we’re self-correcting ourselves by bringing constraints like budget and technology too early in the process. Business viability and technological feasibility are important, but they should not be brought during ideas budding.

Two steps — understand and act. One would think it’s not that difficult, but it is. Knowing when to invest in understanding and when in acting and how to use the learning that comes from both is crucial. Sometimes it’s also a matter of good facilitation. At we are masters at that. In the last couple of years we have worked with multinational corporations, up-and-coming startups, public institutions and NGOs to scope problems and motivate teams to act on them by equipping them with the right skill set to design proper user research and iteratively prototype solutions. Need good facilitation? Contact us at

About me: I’m a design thinker trained at the HPI School of Design Thinking and Stanford Previously I have worked in the European Aviation Safety Agency taking various roles in planning and controlling. I’m also the editor and curator of Airport Hub & Passenger eXperience and a passenger experience geek. I’m currently working on bringing Design Thinking to companies and organizations in Bulgaria and CEE where I originally come from. I’m the proud the founder of Since I have founded I have worked with many different industries from IT and banking to gaming and education. I’m very excited about what’s coming next!