Design Thinking and a Culture of Innovation


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If you’re a CEO, senior leader or responsible for making innovation happen in your organisation and you think that building a culture of innovation is a prescriptive tick box process I would challenge you to have a rethink. In my new book Building a Culture of Innovation’ co-written with Derek Bishop and Jo Geraghty we set out a six stage framework for placing innovation at the core of a business but as we make clear on page one, the framework will not deliver ‘a universal panacea or an ABC of prescriptive steps to follow that will always lead to a fixed conclusion.’

Building a culture of innovation, by its very nature will always be personal to your business. If it isn’t i.e. if you aren’t different, how are you going to create differentiated solutions which resonate with your customers? Despite the endpoint not being fixed in stone there are still a number of methods which can help organisations to transform their culture to one which embraces innovation. One of these relates to the application of design thinking to innovation.

What is design thinking? Design thinking is widely believed to have started in the 1960s but as with a lot of contemporary management theory, its roots can actually be traced back much further. Case in point, let’s go back to the times of the ancient philosophers. When Aristotle was talking about ‘practical reasoning’ he commented that it presupposed that there is some end, some goal one is trying to achieve and that the task of reasoning is to determine how that goal is to be accomplished. This is the basis for design thinking which in essence says that rather than solving a specific problem, you should start with a goal, a better future solution, and then design the pathway towards it.

Interestingly, a practical example of this came up just recently. At the time of writing BBC Radio 2 was running its annual story competition in which they invite children to submit 500 word stories. To help children to come up with ideas and construct their stories there are plenty of handy hints on the website as well as the art of story writing being regularly discussed on the breakfast show. One contributor to this discussion recommended that the best way to structure a story was to start with the closing sentence. He commented that when you don’t know how the story is going to end it is all too easy to lose your way but that if you have already fixed the endpoint, is far easier to map out a pathway which will take you from the start to the desired ending.

So how does this sit with innovation? Well for a start, organisations which have an innovation-led culture have moved away from simply introducing something new or different (invention) and towards the identification and solving of a genuine problem. A problem unearthed from deep understanding and collaboration with their customers in order that the solution adds real value to the customer and thus drives real differentiation, competitive advantage and growth for the organisation. Essentially it is this move towards solution-based architecture which differentiates those who are actually just inventing from the true innovators.

Design thinking also has other areas in common with innovation; areas such as treating failure as a learning point, developing genuine customer insights, or ‘intelligence’ as I refer to it. Collaboration and co-creation are all intrinsic to the innovation model. But that doesn’t mean that design thinking and a culture of innovation are completely interchangeable. Design thinking may sit at the heart of the innovation process but those building a culture of innovation will eventually see innovation methodologies sitting at the heart of the strategy and values of the organisation. Nevertheless, design thinking has a lot to teach potential innovators, not least in the way it sees product and process development as a means to an end rather than as the end itself!

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