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Enterprises need to innovate to stay relevant amidst technology advancements, a competitive business environment and demanding customer expectations. Design Thinking shows the way.

Innovation does not happen in quiet cabins of lone strategists in higher corporate echelons. Innovation is possible when leaders step out to rediscover the consumer/user/customer; it is only when you step into their shoes/skin and identify with them so totally that you can recognize their ‘unexpressed’ needs, that your journey to innovation begins.

This complete connection with your audience, a deep engagement that is akin to ‘immersion’, enables you to shed bias and open your eyes to facts that you have been blind to all along.

In today’s rapid cycle business environment, it is quite possible that business leaders are over-reliant on data-inferenced conclusions. They have trained themselves to identify customer wants from the prism of ‘articulated’ needs. So, there is no scope for fresh ideas and growth.

To escape this trap, we should infuse design thinking in the project management culture of organizations and build a network of collaborators with a spirit of inquiry.

Traditionally, design thinking is seen as seeking creative solutions for problems in a five-step process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Innovators tend to adapt their own interpretations of design thinking and I am no exception.

According to me, Design Thinking delves deeper to discover solutions that satisfy needs the consumer did not know existed, by sparking wants they did not dare to dream of and by fulfilling these needs/wants in ways that create value that they are ready to pay for without questions. These precious solutions are of course, what we call innovations.

Aligning actions to succeed at innovation and taking people along the journey from research to rollout involves social technology that reshapes behavior across the organization, especially leadership.

A word of caution: a collaborative approach will bring some semblance of order to creativity, which otherwise may go berserk.

The Grand Design

The question then is how do we as innovative leaders find and express these “mystery” needs of a customer?

One answer is to contextualize the consumer or understand the circumstances under which the interaction is taking place. New details will emerge which will help you empathize with them better and provide reasons to ‘reframe’ a problem. When you see an issue in new light, you can experiment and come up with new answers.

Jeanne Liedtka, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and an expert on the subject, provides a detailed definition:

“Design Thinking is a problem-solving methodology (especially well-suited for investigating ill-defined problems) that is human-centered, possibility-focused, and hypothesis-driven. It is a style of thinking that combines empathy for the users and immersion in the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and a data-based experimental approach to assessing the quality of solutions.”

Customer Coherence: The first step to innovation lies in choosing the customer persona who best represents your customer-base. It may not always be wise to satisfy the demand of the majority. You must match it with realities such as what fits in best with your product capabilities, what helps simplicity and what syncs with your business credo. In a sense, though it may sound contradictory, design thinking also tells you when to ignore what is articulated. Example: WeChat has resisted demands for the ‘Read’ notification to preserve the voluntary nature of social interactions.

Brainstorming: The second step is to brainstorm with a diverse team, to give free rein to imagination, stretch limits and challenge narrow individual interpretations. A typical design thinking discussion will not drop an idea that will not work; it will deliberate on what will make the idea work.

A cluster of such ideas with attendant conditions that will make them succeed will be identified, even as teams are constituted and strategies devised to make them a reality.

Ideas Log: The quality of ideas collected in the brainstorming session should satisfy the following conditions:

  1. Question Status Quo – Why is this being done, what if we do it this way?
  2. Discover and Learn – Avoid focus on constraints, shun compromise and ‘incremental’ improvements without risks
  3. Champion Change – Embrace change to seize opportunities to gain competitive and strategic edge in business

Early Prototypes: Instead of releasing a fully-ready prototype, it is better to choose rough models to identify bad ideas in the low fidelity stage. This provides greater flexibility and allows for refinement through an iterative process on work-in-progress. The cost of change is reduced with corrections made enroute and with employees participating in the feedback process. In fact, the very approach of making a rough prototype, encourages employee buy-in as they participate in the creative process by giving suggestions to refine the product or service. In the process they also become part of the innovation journey.

Are Large Enterprises Innovation Wastelands?

While innovation can be pursued successfully anywhere, it is true that traditional organizational structures, risk-averse boards, ‘command-and-control’ leadership styles and competency gaps in innovation capability are major barriers to innovation across enterprises.

The State of the Innovative Leaders Report, 2018 from DHR International found that most organizations generally lack the leadership competencies needed to innovate successfully. From the findings of 636 business leaders surveyed, it was found most companies have generally not defined, measured, or rewarded innovative leadership. Nor have they built programs for developing key competencies for innovative leaders or effective approaches to acquiring this talent.

Here are some interesting insights:

  • About 45% defined innovation as transforming existing business models, products, and services to leapfrog competitors
  • 28% said innovation helps keep pace with industry change

While most respondents agreed that a clear vision of the future, and a continuous learning mindset were essential qualities in a leader to drive innovations, it was found that:

  • Only 44 percent of respondents said their key leaders had strategic vision
  • Only 39 percent said leaders were skilled in collaborative management, and
  • Only 39 percent said leaders possessed a continuous learning mindset.

The problem as identified by the report is that many leaders of today are those who rose through the ranks by insisting on consensus and that employees fall in line in order to succeed. Whereas, innovation demands that leaders amplify differences within their organizations and be comfortable managing the kind of creative conflict that ultimately leads to a robust portfolio of new ideas.

So, are you ready to stoke up a little dissension in your organization? Just enough to encourage innovation.

About the author

Arvind Rongala is Director, Invensis Learning, a global training and certification provider in the IT, technical and business management fields. Under his stellar leadership, Invensis Learning has trained 50,000 plus professionals across the World, and is a trusted partner for Fortune 1000 companies.  Associated with the Invensis group of companies for nearly a decade, Arvind is now a recognized name in the learning and continuing education sphere. His views on topics like Agile Project Management, DevOps, IT Security and Governance, Quality Management and Digital Marketing are valued by media, industry peers and the business community at large.

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