In too many organisations today, design is deployed solely as a conveyor belt to churn out user interfaces and incremental improvements. But how do you get it to be a strategic enabler for radical reinvention or competitive advantage?

Alex Higgs
Alex Higgs
4th August 2021

Not that long ago we had our own internal design discussion on the nature of innovation. And just last month we held a virtual panel event on designing for innovation. Hosted by our strategy director Andy Thornton, it featured a stellar line-up of industry experts:

Designing for innovation panellists

Defining it

Andy got the ball rolling by asking for a definition of innovation. Janna said:

Innovation is the process of breaking through into something new. In order to get to innovation, you have to be willing to try a wide number of things.

Dorota described innovation like this:

It’s basically creativity in a business context.

Describing IDEO’s work, Matt said:

For us, innovation often just means helping companies tackle challenges, either with new groups of customers that they don’t normally talk to or tackling new problems with new solutions and services that they’re not used to.

So there’s a general consensus that innovation involves doing something new. Doing something new can be risky. Therein lies the paradox of innovation for many companies. Most organisations want to be innovative, but most organisations are also risk averse.

Starting it

Dorota talked about the benefit of having a project sponsor in your corner to help you push innovation through. Akshan agreed:

Something that’s really helpful and really necessary is executive leader sponsorship. If the exec leader—the CEO, the chairman, or whatever—is creating the mandate for the rest of the company, it’s a very top-down thing, but you’re incentivizing innovation. You’re incentivizing people to take risks and you’re making it okay to do that. In fact, you’re rewarding people to do that.

Janna pointed out that design is not the only discipline that has to deal with uncertainty. Other teams have to sell in risky endeavours all the time. The marketing department acknowledges that “half of your ad dollars are wasted; you just don’t know which half.” Similarly, the sales team talks about their pipeline in terms of probabilities: “we’re 70% sure of these deals and 60% sure of those deals.”

Those teams try things out. They run experiments. Some of the experiments are going to fail and some of them are going to be successful. So, as Janna says, it’s not that different for design:

All we’re saying is that there are rewards if you do it. And risks if you don’t. And it’s easy enough to do. Look how others are doing it. Let’s get together and we can do this innovation thing and it should start moving the needle in the right direction.

Selling it

You’ve still got to make the business case for any innovative initiative. Andy asked if anyone had any tips for that situation.

Dorota said she got a lot of value from pushing for an open-ended research project:

It was a legacy product that had a lot of value already, but you obviously had to add new innovations to maintain it. And it was kind of a fresh pair of eyes on what’s actually possible in that space.

Matt talked about the benefits of “show, don’t tell”:

We’re all humans with tangible senses. When we can look at something and hold it and walk around it or click on it if it’s a digital thing, it changes your understanding of what you’re looking at.

As ever, designers also need to speak the language of business. As Janna put it:

We can talk until the cows come home about customer delight and journey mapping and design thinking and all these things. It all sounds a little bit fluffy to our leaders. At the end of the day, they want to know that their bucks are going a little bit further each time. So talk to them about the return on investment that they’ll get.

And you can also show them examples of other companies that have reaped the benefits of investing in innovation. There are plenty of case studies out there.

Matt pointed out that we need to be aware of what we’re asking of people:

They’ve probably got to where they are in the organization by not doing any of the things that we’re asking them to do: embrace ambiguity; trust the process; take stuff to users really early; get stuff wrong. All those things are literally the opposite of what they’ve been taught to do for their whole career.

Maintaining it

Innovation shouldn’t be a one-off event. It should be continuous. But what’s the best structure for maintaining innovation? Andy asked if a skunkworks-style lab was the way to go:

The lab concept is one way of handling innovation as in it’s a siloed self-funded part of the business that’s allowed to make lots of failure, but very often it doesn’t have much communication with other parts of the business. How blended should innovation be within a business?

Dorota described how things have evolved at Southern Water:

Earlier on we probably developed some of the solutions a little bit more in isolation. I think that’s not the case so much now. And it’s definitely visible in the types of benefits and impact that we’re having as a team.

Akshan talked about the importance of co-creation rather than delivery:

The way that I’ve seen innovation labs work really well, in my opinion, is when they’re not actually doing the innovation, but they’re facilitating the innovation.

Pondering it

There was a lot of food for thought in this panel discussion. As always, the time just flew by.

If anything, the discussion raised more questions than it answered but we knew going into this that we weren’t going to “solve” the dilemma of innovation; that fundamental tension between risks and rewards.

But one of the simplest solutions to cracking this conundrum is for us all to share our experiences and our stories. We’re so grateful to Janna, Matt, Akshan, and Dorota for giving their time and expertise.

You can watch the full panel here: