“Innovate or die” becomes the order of the day. People in response seek ways to innovate. Of late, many have embraced the practice of collaborative innovation, with its application of social media to sourcing crowds and ideas, and design thinking, with its structured approach to vetting hypotheses about new business opportunities. Having arrived in the organization by different routes, they exist as potential complements. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores ways to combine the practices to their mutual benefit.

The mandate to innovate permeates the organization. People mull the memo from on high as they sip their morning coffee. The conversation moves from “What?” (answer: innovation) to “How?” (answer: multiple choice—please get a good night’s sleep and bring two #2 pencils with you for the test).

On the latter question, we observe that most approaches have an innovation component. The lean practitioner innovates their way to True North. The member of the World Café society innovates their way to a shared future.

This camp includes a growing cadre of design thinkers: people who apply the enquiry-driven rigor of the design practice to gestating new business opportunities. I love these people. Their practice remedies the vapid, eye-chart-pie-chart approach to business planning that steers so many new ventures onto the rocks. Can we agree that the path to effective innovation does not begin with brainstorming the cash flow statement?

I explore in this article ways in which people who practice design thinking can weave the practice of collaborative innovation into their work. By collaborative innovation I mean the practice of convening a community of people to explore a critical question both virtually and in person.

I reference Designing for Growth by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie to depict design thinking. An earlier article of mine puts the practice of collaborative innovation in context.

Empathy for the Customer; Sympathy for the Profits

Design thinking begins with empathy for the customer. The design thinker works back from there: Can we solve a problem for them in the form of a profitable enterprise?

Design thinking demands that its practitioners ask the right question at the right time and, above all else, values the well-formed enquiry. The sages of design thinking and collaborative innovation nod in accord.

Liedtka and Ogilvie depict the design thinker’s way with the following capstone graphic (figure 1). The article proceeds by the four questions.

Figure 1: the design thinker’s journey: ask the right questions; apply the right tools to pursue answers

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The Larger Application of Collaborative Innovation

Design thinking demands its practitioners work closely with the consumer or user throughout the process, from understanding their circumstances (What Is?) to trialing a concept with them (What Works?). Customer engagement costs time and money, however: travel and administrative costs, for example.

To this end, the virtual aspect of collaborative innovation—crowdsourcing ideas and insights around the critical question—can serve as a useful addition to the design thinker’s tool box. In addition, applying the practice of collaborative innovation may help the design thinker reach a larger community of consumers than face-to-face engagement would otherwise permit (figure 2).

Figure 2: mapping design thinking to the forms and focus of collaborative innovation

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What Is?

In the What Is? phase of the design thinker’s journey, they apply various approaches to help them understand the customer’s environment and—borrowing from Christensen and Ulwick—the jobs that they want to accomplish. The design thinker ignores the means by which the consumer accomplishes their jobs today.

The application of collaborative innovation may come in the form of a series of critical questions around the constraints the consumer faces in accomplishing their jobs. For example, generically, “What constraints, were they to be removed, would allow you to maximize the efficiency with which you accomplish the job?” The design thinker would specify the context based on the nature of their enquiry.

Collaborative innovation, while no substitute for the in situ research that defines this phase, could support follow-up dialogue and surface the most painful constraints (figure 3).

Figure 3: applying the enquiry-led form of external innovation to explore constraints

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What If?

The What If? phase of design thinking maps to a mainstream application of collaborative innovation, in which the practitioner invites the community to explore the possibilities around the critical question: How might we approach the challenge at hand?

The practice of design thinking can inform the classic innovation challenge. Work from the What Is? phase provides context for forming the critical question. The enquiry for What If? moves from the external to the internal form of collaborative innovation (figure 4).

Figure 4: exploring possibilities with innovative users

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What Wows?

The What Wows? Phase of design thinking serves as an optimization exercise: What set of ideas identified during the What If? phase would yield the greatest profit and greatest differentiation?

The practice of collaborative innovation offers two benefits. First, by introducing the assumptions as the evaluation criteria as part of the crowdsourcing activity, the design thinker can screen the ideas that reach this phase. These screens can consist of criteria that address the likelihood the innovation will proliferate in general and that it will pass the set of tests specific to the design of the potential business. Second, if the design thinker has not identified the set of assumptions by which to test the idea, then they could make this question the critical one to ask the community.

The latter approach makes sense if the design thinker fears that certain blind spots limit the quality of the assumption testing: the unknown unknowns.

This enquiry could be made both internally and externally. Comparing the feedback from both groups would prove enlightening (figure 5).

Figure 5: testing assumptions with internal stakeholders and external, innovative users

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What Works?

The practice of collaborative innovation lends itself to the What Works? phase of design thinking. This phase involves trialing the solution with the customer and gaining feedback on whether the initial set of assumptions that defined the business continue to hold water.

Elements of the prototype offer and the value chain used to deliver it to the market become the critical questions upon which the community engages.

By nature, this form of collaborative innovation is external. The design thinker targets the innovative users with whom their firm wishes to co-create (figure 6).

Figure 6: exploring elements of the offer and its value chain with innovative users

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Parting Thoughts

People who practice design thinking enjoy a viable, rigorous way of conceiving new businesses. They move past the idiocy of leading with downstream exercises such as projecting cash flows.

Integrating the practice of collaborative innovation opens the possibility of including more people—more stakeholders who would deliver the value chain and more consumers would first use the offering—in the process. Opportunities for inter-firm and customer co-creation grow.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question.
As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.