Increasingly, innovation is a vital skill to be developed and demonstrated by people throughout all organisations. Anyone can, and everyone should, be innovating - and design thinking is a valuable way to do this.

For the purposes of this article, and for want of a simple single sentence on the matter, I’m going to define innovation as ‘you or your organisation doing something new or different’.

This is the first of two articles giving tips on how to kick-start design-led innovation in your organisation. In this one, we’ll look at four ways to systematically spot issues to innovate around, and explore how to introduce your non-design colleagues to the value of design thinking.

Why make the effort and why go ‘undercover’?

Innovation is the lifeblood of an organisation, if it is to thrive. This is the case regardless of the sector in which the organisation operates, it’s size or revenue, how long it has been around, or any particular commercial model within which it fits. Whether it provides products or services, focuses on B2C or B2B offerings, is a startup or an established enterprise, innovation is vital.

Designers typically embody a heady mix of attributes that are ripe for fostering innovation. The blend of curiosity, questioning, empathy, prototyping and collaboration are key to being able to create imaginative scaleable solutions to existing challenges and anticipated opportunities.

However, in many organisations, it is easy for designers to get boxed into a pure delivery role merely adding polish at the end of the process. This is where ‘undercover innovation’ comes in. It is a bottom-up way for designers to move across into discovery and definition by proactively taking a lead to find and develop opportunities for innovation. With a little effort you’ll soon be invited to use your skills on more interesting challenges.

So stop waiting to be struck by that eureka moment.

Stop waiting to be asked to head up an innovation project.

Instead, take the initiative and introduce design led innovation techniques to your workplace.

Three golden rules to help you succeed

Let’s start with three important principles to bear in mind.

  1. Minimise time and amplify output. As you’ll initially be doing this between other tasks and in your downtime, you need to do small activities that maximise the value and exposure for your efforts.

  2. Make friends and allies. If you want to elevate the understanding of what design and design thinking can achieve, you need to invite people in and show them your way of doing things.

  3. Don’t tread on toes. Look to tackle challenges the business isn’t yet addressing. You want to carve a new space rather than set yourself up in competition with colleagues who may already be tasked to look into certain issues.

Four techniques to start you off

With the guiding principles in mind, you can get started and employ some practical tactics to get things moving and spot opportunities to innovate. All of the following techniques are based on needing no more than half a day in total to prepare, run and report on. Often this time is in short focussed bursts of activity designed for you to fit in and around your existing work schedule.

1. ​Do a digital trends review

Many organisations are great at looking at what their direct competition is introducing to the marketplace. However, they are typically less good at spotting wider digital trends and figuring out which ones to investigate and exploit.

This is where a trends review helps. Become the curator and presenter of new topics and themes and keep people in your organisation up to date.

Simply in a slide deck collate three to five emerging or interesting digital trends with a selection of screenshots from related projects. Remember these examples should not be restricted to your industry sector. Spread your gaze wide. Recent trends could include the rise of the chatbot, the gig economy, the move from product ownership to subscription models, wearable technology, voice user interfaces etc.

Then find a time and place to present your deck and invite people to come to listen to your review. To make it easy for the most people to attend run the session at the start of the day or at lunchtime. Consider providing some food or snacks as an added incentive. Have an open invitation but also directly invite colleagues you want to influence and express the benefits for them in attending. This should include people in the organisation who green light future innovation projects.

Remember you are asking colleagues to give up their time to attend so make sure you finish on or before time and that they have gained more value from you than the time taken.

To focus the session on innovation through design, after your presentation, include a participatory design exercise. One way to do this is to divide the attendees into small groups and get each group to take a different trend and look at how the organisation could apply it.

Once they have had a chance to generate some ideas get each group to present back to the the attendees. Then rank or vote the ideas the group feels are of most interest to pursue further.

At the end of the session, collate the output of the design exercise into your deck. Then send out the slides to the people who attended and also make them available to others in the organisation.

To position yourself as a thought leader and trend spotter you should run a review session periodically. Quarterly seems to provide a suitable timeframe to capture emerging trends with the effort required in putting together the session.

2. Map customer feedback

With this innovation technique you are looking to plot what customers say across the end-to-end touchpoints with your products or services. This will help to spot where design efforts for improvements can be made.

In many organisations a lot of customer feedback is gathered but is often used by departments for their specific needs. This technique takes the data out of department siloes to give a holistic, timely and visibly account of the customers experience.

It’s a take on customer journey mapping. The difference is it captures and maps what people have said at various interactions rather than what they are looking to achieve.

There are two parts to customer feedback mapping. First capture customer feedback and then in a facilitated workshop spot the areas for design innovation.

To capture and show the feedback you need a long wall, some brown paper and plenty of Post-it notes®. Stick up the paper and add horizontally along the top the key sequential moments in the customer journey from initial awareness through to fulfilment. On the vertical axis add rows for positive and negative feedback. In addition, add some information on what you are doing, the time period the feedback covers, and how people can get involved.

The next step is to collect the data. Some sources might be internal such as online feedback forms, call centre logs, comments to customer facing staff etc. Some will be external sources such as comments on product review sites, social media and community noticeboards etc. Once you have a list of sources work out which ones you need to monitor (or get help to monitor) and which you can ask colleagues to provide you the information.

To kick start the process ask departments who collect data to either share it with you or even better to have someone from their team collate and add the feedback to the map on a daily basis. You may want to play on inter-departmental competition to encourage more people to help.

Each day get into the habit of adding feedback to the wall. This will help maintain and grow interest from passers-by and the map grows.

On each Post-it note capture the issue in the words of the customer. If issues occur more than once add a tallied score to the Post-it® note.

The output will highlight three key things:

  1. The positive aspects of your product or service to promote.

  2. The negative aspects to put re-design effort into addressing.

  3. Areas where you don’t yet get customer intelligence.

Once you have captured the customer feedback host a workshop to turn the insight into opportunities. You role is to act as the facilitator and to invite anyone who is interested to come along and participate. In the workshop identify the key issues from the ones that frequently occur, the ones that cause the most vociferous complaints, and those that directly lead to missed sales opportunities.

I cover tips on how to run an ideas generation workshop in the follow on article ‘Become an undercover innovator - how to generate and develop ideas’.

3. Host a breakfast briefing

Inspire your colleagues, increase their knowledge and save them time from having to do their own research by giving in-depth briefings around a single topic or technique.

Concentrate on finding topics that have relevance to your organisation and those where you think they is an appetite to use design to explore and innovate in. Topics could include personalisation, big data, digital storytelling, the pros and cons of innovation labs, virtual reality etc.

Breakfast is a great time to do this as people are more likely to be able to set some time aside and not get caught up in meetings or arising issues to address. To provide more of an incentive consider organising tea, coffee and pastries for attendees.

Breakfast briefing bribery. Illustration by James Gilyead.

The briefing breakfast has two parts. A presentation to frame the subject and to give examples of the impact it has made to other organisations, followed by a facilitated discussion to explore the subject.

Remember you don't have to be an expert in the subject under discussion. You are merely surfacing information and examples you have researched. To spread the effort consider inviting colleagues, suppliers or external contacts to give the briefing with you acting just as the host and facilitator.

For the discussion have a series of questions to act both as prompts and also as a way to structure and help collate feedback. Keep the questions broad, for example ‘How could this help our customers?’, ‘What issues could we solve by using this?’ and ‘What challenges might we face in using this?’.

Depending on the number of attendees consider getting people to sit in groups with a volunteer table host whose role is to facilitate the conversation and collate summary notes. At the end of the session get each table host to briefly feedback their headlines to the group.

After the session send out to those who attending your slides and a summary of the discussion. To get potential buy-in to explore subjects further ask them to send it on to who they think in the organisation might be interested in the subject.

Keep the briefings short. Ideally, no more than 45 minutes. These briefings work best if they are frequent and regular. Maybe book in an initial series of six sessions on a set day every month. Once they are up and running ask attendees for suggestions of topics they would like to have included.

4. Create an internal frustrations matrix

As a designer, diagnosing and suggesting remedies for internal pain points is a sure fire way to make you friends and allies.

Innovation isn’t and shouldn’t be solely about creating new service and products for customers. Often overlooked in many organisations is the efficiency, cost-saving and higher productivity that can be achieved through innovating on internal processes and tools. Yet very few companies do it.

Plotting internal issues of a matrix in order to quickly identify the post pressing and frequent points of frustration will provide a clear picture of areas for design exploration.

The two activities you need to undertake is data collection followed by prioritisation of the issues to explore further. Time-boxing the data collection to a week or two will keep momentum in the project and in most cases be enough to get a snapshot of the severe pain points.

In collecting data you ideally want colleagues to report issues as and when they occur. It’s often the small and frequent time-sinks that when viewed across a whole organisation add up to big opportunities for innovation. In the moment reporting also helps remove biases associated with the accurate recall and reporting of past events.

Depending on size of your organisation and the time you have available you may want to limit the data collection to a smaller and more focused group of people. This could be an individual department or a sample across many departments.

To help you to collect information consider what tools you already use or can easily roll out. Ideally you want a tool that is easy for people to access and visible in their work environment.

You might want to consider using a Google form that people could leave open in a tab in their browser, or if you use Slack think about setting up a dedicated account so people can send you direct messages of their issues as they occur. A lower tech way is to give each of your participants a pack of postcards and ask them to write individual issues on them as they occur. You can then ask them to return them periodically or go and collect them in person.

It is important to stress to people you are interesting to know what is frustrating or time-consuming, what impact or delay it causes, and what they currently do to tackle the issue. Also, reiterate that finding solutions will come later and invite them to participate in this activity when it happens.

Once you have a list of issues create a prioritised shortlist by plotting the frequency of the issue (do a napkin calculation to extrapolate the number of times the activity is done daily and by how many people) against the severity (this might be a gauge of levels of frustration and/or time wasted). You might need to ask those who provided data to show you in context the issue they have so you can understand it in more detail.

The prioritisation can be done alone but will benefit with involving interested colleagues to help plot the issues with you. Once you have a matrix you are in the position to set up and run a design ideation workshop to explore remedies.

Now what?

All of these things are designed to be achievable in less than half a day’s effort, so give it a go and let me know how you get on.

Opportunity spotting is step one. Step two is developing potential solutions. In the next article ‘Become an undercover innovator - how to generate and develop ideas’, I’ll look at techniques to rapidly do just that. Keep a look out for it very soon!

I’m fascinated by the how design thinking can be used to identify, explore and create innovative solutions to business challenges and user needs. If you have techniques to share or questions on how to become an undercover innovator drop me a line at

Read Part 2: ‘Become an undercover innovator - how to generate and develop ideas’ here.

Join the conversation about design thinking and undercover innovation on Twitter, by tweeting us @chrishow and @clearleft.