In the drive to scale design, organisations often focus on their capability to execute, but forget about their ability to innovate too. In fast-paced markets, your ability to identify and exploit opportunities quickly is crucial to maintaining competitive advantage.

James Bates
James Bates
21st May 2018

So, you’re scaling design within your organisation. Your designers are distributed and sit within well-oiled, multidisciplinary product teams. They’re all busy, working through your backlog and consistently releasing improvements to your product. But yet, you realise you’re losing market position. A competitor has leap-frogged you by exploiting an opportunity you hadn’t even considered. Your previously held competitive advantage has disappeared. And now you’re playing catch up.

This is a story familiar to lots of organisations seeking to scale design. By focussing on making what they currently do more efficient and effective, there’s a danger they’ll neglect their ability and capacity to exploit longer-term opportunities too.

In a recent piece of research by McKinsey, 70% of executives surveyed said “innovation will be at least one of the top three drivers of growth for their companies in the next 3-5 years”. If that’s the aspiration then what makes it so challenging?

In the drive to make design scalable and repeatable, how do you also make room for genuine innovation? In this (the first of a two-part) article, I’ll outline some of the common challenges we’ve seen organisations struggle with when trying to innovate whilst scaling design.

Business-as-usual comes first

This is probably the most common challenge. Stuff just gets in the way. Whether that’s the day-today product design and development cycle, routines (meetings, planning etc.), or managing the process (hiring, 1:1s, building processes and evaluating tools). It all takes time and, in our experience, it often takes priority (especially in small teams with limited resource).

Short-term focus

Lots of product teams are all too often focussed on shorter-term impact. They’re typically tasked with moving the needle on specific metrics, so are only looking 3-6 months out. They’re optimising their designs, but only within the constraints of what currently exists (referred to as Local Maximum). From this perspective they often view more radical change as risky or potentially wasteful.

Innovation islands

We often see sporadic bursts of ‘innovation’ happening from small groups acting in their own interest. Whilst not necessarily bad, they’re often trying to solve a problem only that particular group has; or, even worse, deliver on one individual’s ‘big idea’. More crucially, they aren’t being led by broader strategy or being driven by actual customer needs. There’s often a lack involvement, feedback and validation from other parts of the business. Without this, these stand-alone initiatives tend to have limited success, lead to disjointed experiences and have a negative impact on other groups.

Lack of customer insight

Lots of organisations still don’t spend enough time really understanding their customers. They’re typically using evaluative methods to measure customer behaviour or validate the work they’re doing. But they crucially lack the ongoing formative research into customer attitudes, behaviours and needs. It’s these insights that provide the opportunities for innovation and exploration.

Organisational culture

This is the biggest hurdle of all, as it’s often the most difficult to change and moves the slowest. Your organisation’s culture can affect how you innovate in a multitude of ways. Lots of organisations (particularly large well-established ones) are inherently risk averse and therefore wary of experimentation and perceived failure. Some have organisational structures or processes that mean they think in terms of one-off projects and outputs rather than ongoing programmes and outcomes. Others don’t especially value brand or product differentiation, or perhaps they don’t have a clearly articulated and understood vision. Any of these can make innovating difficult. All of these are time consuming and difficult to overcome and require both persistence and advocacy at senior levels.

So, if these are some of the challenges, then what do you do? In a follow-up to this post I’ll outline some of the successful strategies we at Clearleft have seen and used to help companies continue to innovate.

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