Last week I attended the International Society of
Professional Innovation Managers (ISPIM) conference in Barcelona. I had never
been to this conference before and had no idea of what to expect. I had decided
to attend because they had accepted a topic I had submitted to present. I
welcomed the opportunity to speak about translation (more on that later), but I
was also curious about this group that had been in existence for so long that I
had known so little about.
The first thing I'll say is that the conference was
excellent. Next year it is in Helsinki, and I'm pretty sure I'll be going back.
It was formally founded in Norway in 1983, as the result of an initiative by
Prof. Knut Holt to study Needs Assessment and Information Behavior (NAIB) as a
way to inform the innovation process.
Why it had never crossed my radar before is a mystery to me, but the
membership is largely European.
The conference is a nice blend of academics and industry
people, many of whom give presentations on interesting work they are currently
doing. It was very different from the Front End of Innovation conference held
every year, which seems to be the "go to" innovation conference in
the US. Unlike the FEI conference, ISPIM was not filled with semi celebrity key
note speakers. It was much smaller and had a much larger percentage of
attendees presenting their ideas. As a result there were few if any people
there on corporate boondoggle trips, and the experience was extremely rich and
engaging. It was not for anyone who wanted to sit back and be informed or
entertained. Here are some key ideas I
It was refreshing to be with a group of people who
understood that good ideas are developed and inform new offerings, rather than
expecting fully formed products to pop up from brainstorming sessions. In fact,
brainstorming wasn't mentioned once in three days, even in sessions on
creativity and ideation. Did I say refreshing? Yes!!
As can be expected, large companies are lagging in terms
of developing very innovative offerings, as well as incorporating innovative
ways of working. The few who stood out were General Mills, who acknowledged the
challenges in getting a huge company to work in new ways, and focused the
presentation on how they are doing it. A
great presentation from Sara Lee focused on how following the consumer too
closely can get you into trouble. This wasn't a new idea, but they offered a
very good example of a product that failed as a result of getting this wrong.
It was a very humble and gutsy presentation.
I was surprised at the number of national governments
that are sponsoring projects between academia and industry in an effort to spur
innovation. There was a lot of very progressive work being done through these
collaborations. One of these ideas is a tool called Living Labs. I thought this
work was very interesting and will post about it separately. The government of
Norway is funding similar projects which seem to be gaining a lot of traction.
The idea of Design Thinking was alive and well, and I
knew i was in good company when all but maybe 1 or 2 people felt that the term
was problematic in terms of furthering
the intended goals. I saw more great examples of the principles put into action
than I have ever seen come out of the design community in the US. More on that topic later as well.
Speaking of Design Thinking, the Australian government
really blew me away with a presentation of their focus on learning about the
needs of their constituents to develop new solutions to existing problems. They
started with a simple project in the tax department, where they learned that
many people don't file their taxes, and audit rates were high because people
had a difficult time understanding what they needed to do. Tis resulted in a
first step in redesigning the tax forms.
Sounds simple, but the result of redesigning the forms to meet the needs
of the people who actually used them has been a huge success in solving the
problems. They are now progressing to use this process to influence policy
development. It is helping them to transcend the party driven method of policy
development. (I don't know about you, but I can think of another government
that would benefit from a new method of policy development.)
As far as my work goes, I presented the concepts of
translation that I've been working on lately. More on that topic later as well,
but the idea that people respond go product attributes in predictable ways, and
that they can be deliberately worked into the design of an offering to make it
more consistent with a consumers needs was new to many people. I walked away
with several connections that I hope will lead to collaborations about how to
define the skills possessed by people who are good at doing this type of
As you can imagine, there were many, many more things I
took away, but these are just a few of the top lines. The conference was very well organized, and I
came away excited about the ideas and connections that I'm sure will blossom in
the next year.
Last year, I wrote a post about Design Thinking in response to an article in Brandweek that I felt was misleading on the topic. In it, I pointed to Roger Martin's work as some of the very best at describing what Design Thinking actually means. Last week I got into a Twitter discussion with Steve Finikiotis after he pointed me to a Harvard Business Ideacast featuring Roger and his ideas on Design Thinking. I agree with Roger's views, however I have noticed some unintended consequences as the terms are put into practice. I boiled down these issues to three main points that I would like to discuss.
First, I philosophically agree with Roger regarding the need for contextual research, abductive reasoning, and problem posing. However, what I find in practice is that the term Design Thinking can be potentially problematic in its interpretation. This is because design is a functional discipline in most organizations, just like marketing, engineering, or finance. Most design education focuses on teaching the fundamentals of honing the craft and developing tangible design skills. The work Roger describes of creating plausible hypotheses and solutions based on contextual research is often done by people who do not have traditional design backgrounds. As a result, I have seen the term create some organizational confusion regarding work that I have found to be discipline agnostic.
My second point is related to the first. Roger talks about how designers and business people need each other in a way that should break down silos to allow the necessary connections between their disciplines to be made. Again, I agree wholeheartedly, yet in practice, the term Design Thinking can cause the unintended consequence within an organization to segregate, rather then integrate the disciplines. Richard Farson, a psychologist who has written quite a bit about design, discusses the need to focus on the "meta" level of all functional disciplines as a way to rise above the executional level within a functional discipline and frame the common problem at hand. When I've presented the "meta" idea to client organizations, it tends to help to philosophically integrate the disciplines within a team, and resolve the terminology issue. It is something to think about.
Finally, Roger very eloquently speaks of the need to integrate creative and analytical thought. (see abductive and adductive reasoning) Amen to that! However, I find the integration of these two types of reasoning to get us part of the way there, but in order to accurately connect seemingly unrelated concepts we need a different type of cognitive skill. For example, we certainly need to integrate creative and analytical reasoning to hypothesize a consumer's motivation behind what they say, and to develop new solutions to satisfy those motivations. However, the ability to accurately translate from a specific plausible hypothesis to a related plausible solution appears to be a different type of cognitive skill that is employed in addition to the integration of the types of reasoning. In the work I've been doing, we're just beginning to scratch the surface of what that is. When I have something concrete, I'll be sure to share it.
I'll end by saying that I'm certainly not intending to criticize Roger Martin's work. On the contrary, from what I've seen he has done a better job than anyone in terms of creating awareness of the need to integrate creative and analytical thought processes and solutions. For that, he has earned my heartfelt gratitude. However, we cannot expect him to do everything alone, or to have every answer. It is our responsibility as practitioners to raise the issue when we sense inconsistency between theory and practice, and continue to work together to hone these concepts.
Several weeks ago, my friend and excellent Salon participant Sean was inspired by Saul Kaplan's article about The Passion Economy. Sean decided to put forth a challenge to several of us to write a short article on what the idea of the passion economy meant, and its potential as an opportunity or fad. All of the articles were written independently, and we did not see the other contributors or the whole document until it was finished. Feel free to download and share the finished e-Book, and join the conversation!
A couple of years ago, I was at a conference which focused on the overlaps between design, business, and other organizational disciplines. It was kicked off with a discussion led by Dr. Richard Farson, who cautioned that the design profession is at risk of devaluing itself as a profession. His argument was that anyone who was in the business of executing tasks that clients ask for is not a true professional, regardless of how skilled they are at their craft. A true professional, Farson stated, is a person who works with a client to achieve a goal, and tailors their tasks to realize that goal. If you don't do that, you are in the business of taking orders, which is a much less valuable endeavor.
He then went on to give the example of Frederick Law Olmsted. For those who don't know, he was the famed landscape designer in the 1800's who designed Central Park in NYC, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and many, many others. Farson stated that if you think Olmsted's greatest achievements are that he designed lots of beautiful parks, "...you've totally missed the point of his role as a professional." He said that Olmsted was a true professional who was working with community leaders to create egalitarian communities where the environment encouraged people to gather together, and used his skill in landscape design toward achieving that purpose. That his parks are still achieving those goals today is a testament to his success as a professional.
I mention this story because it applies not only to design, but to people from any discipline. The world is full of people who are happy to "take orders" from their clients or employers. Why? Being a professional means taking responsibility for doing work that helps an organization to achieve their goals. The client may have an idea for how this should be done, and a professional has to be able to say why those suggestions will or will not work. Yes, a professional sometimes has to say no. And good clients and employers will respect this professional opinion far more than the constant yes of an order taker. This type of relationship requires integrity, trust, and respect for the ultimate purpose that is driving any work that will be done. It is not as easy, but is infinitely more rewarding.
Today, we need more people to step up to the plate and take responsibility for how their professions can help our organizations to achieve their goals. It is easy to point fingers at the leaders who have failed to point our work in the right direction. But I wonder, how many people out there had a chance to influence what was happening, and instead chose to just do what they were told? And on the other hand, how many leaders chose not to listen to those who did step up to deliver a message they may not have wanted to hear?
There has been a lot of discussion about Design Thinking lately. It's an important topic and certainly needs more discussion to achieve better clarity in its meaning as we translate from theory to practice. However, I want to make sure we don't lose sight of the business value of design as a discipline in and of itself.
The outcome of my work is usually the identification of a market opportunity, a business strategy to realize that opportunity, and criteria for solutions to satisfy that opportunity. To me, one of the most important functions of the design discipline is to take information that is tacit, and make it explicit; we call it information design. When an information designer visualizes the relationship between the different aspects of a recommendation, a model is created which makes a holistic understanding possible. Any flaws in logic or previous assumptions are made clear, as are the implications of the decisions that will be made to move ahead. As such, any tacit assumptions that people bring to the discussion are made explicit, and the group can truly align on a common understanding. This is what I mean by "designing" or "visualizing" a business strategy or model, and information design is a critical skill in developing models that achieve this level of clarity.
In many organizations design is used only in the development of the actual product or communication, as done by product or graphic designers. These too are important design skills, but they happen after the criteria for the solution is established. Here the design skill is used to translate intangible criteria into tangible offerings. The extent to which the designer can convey the intent of the solution is what will determine its ultimate success.
How is the design discipline used in your organization? If the designer's role is to apply their personal aesthetic tastes to make an offering "look" better, then you are missing out on an opportunity to make your organization's tacit assumptions more explicit, enabling better decisions to be made. It may be time to rethink how you define the quality and value of design in your business.
Last week Brandweek had an article about Design Thinking, and I'll have to say it was a bit misleading. I'm not going to nitpick the article, but I would like to address a few points that I think are valuable to understand about the topic.
I should start by saying that I am a proponent of Design Thinking, just as I am a proponent of Business Thinking, Legal Thinking, Engineering Thinking, and Political Thinking. All are approaches to solving problems that have evolved to ensure rigor and best practices in their respective professions. Where it gets interesting is when a problem in one discipline benefits from an approach used by another discipline. The current buzz about Design Thinking is an answer to the business world's need to innovate. The current processes used to guide businesses don't lend themselves well to doing something new that can't be measured by current benchmarks. Designers regularly create new solutions that have no benchmarks, so taking a page from the way they work should be helpful to achieve these goals. And it is.
What gets misleading is when the distinction is blurred between an approach that is used in a discipline, and the work, skills, and deliverables expected of professionals in that discipline. If a business person uses design thinking to develop an innovative business model, the outcome is still a business model and the profession is still that of a business person. It does not mean they should be called designers, as they do not possess the skills required of a design professional. If a designer uses business thinking to make their designs more relevant to the business, they are still designers. The article references people with design backgrounds who are now in marketing roles. That would be called a career change.
Finally, it is misleading to narrowly associate tools with disciplines. The article associates ethnography with the way designers learn about consumers, and suggests that focus groups are more for business goals. This is just not true. Ethnography is a research tool, and is used when a deep understanding of consumer values is necessary to solve a problem. This could be a business problem, a design problem, or a pure science problem. If we are truly employing design thinking methodology, we are less worried about what tools we are using, and are instead doing whatever is necessary to achieve our goals.
I don't know who first coined the term Design Thinking (I've heard it was either Tim Brown of IDEO or Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business), but Roger Martin's article is still the best I've seen in terms of defining the value of design thinking to a business. His article on Reliability and Validity is well worth the read. Reliability vs Validity.doc (42.00 kb)
Nov. 13 - Update today from Jess to clarify the attribution of who first coined the term Design Thinking:
As far as origins, Peter Rowe wrote a book called "Design Thinking" that came out in 1987. Not sure about earlier usage, but I'm skeptical of either Brown or Martin being the originator. Here's the Google Book result for Rowe's "Design Thinking"
I recently wrote about how good design embraces constraints. In the comments, Kelly asked how we should go about focusing a client on the possible design constraints upfront in the process. This is a good question, and the extent to which you can identify all the constraints upfront depends on the extent to which you are looking to improve the existing offering, or you are looking for a breakthrough.
In my experience, if you are looking to improve on an existing offering, the real constraints typically consist of tangible boundaries that are easy to identify. These would be things like current manufacturing processes, distribution channels, category definition, and organizational structures. If the new design needs to fit within these constraints, the designer should be made aware of them in the beginning. It is then part of the designers job to creatively work within these constraints. For example, if I am a company that manufactures padlocks, and I am improving my current product, the constraints should be easy to identify.
On the other hand, if you want to develop a breakthrough innovation, it is necessary to understand that one of the most important outcomes of the project will be to indentify the constraints. In this case the real constraints tend to be less tangible, consisting of things like the consumers' culture, and macroeconomic regulations and conditions. Any of the constraints listed above would be self-imposed. Back to the padlock example, if I want to develop a breakthrough innovation, defining my company as a padlock company would be unnecessarily limiting. I could redefine the company as a security company, and a whole world of options opens up. The real constraints for how consumers perceive security would need to be indentified as part of the project, before potential solutions are explored. Once potential solutions are explored and selected, the next set of constraints needs to be defined. These would be things like where, how they will be made, new organizational processes that will be needed, which categories will now define the offering, etc.
The point is that regardless of the type of project you are undertaking, the constraints should be identified before the designer starts designing anything. If we are trying to do something truly new, we should be aware that defining constraints is part of the process, and we should be prepared for the reality that current constraints may not need to be imposed on future offerings.
I talk a lot about consumer insight: how to learn from consumers, how to derive insights, and how to translate them into useful criteria to guide decision-making. I realized that I don't talk so much about how this connects to the design process, and I'll be mixing in more of that from now on.
I've often heard clients talk about holding back on the constraints because they don't want to hinder the creative process. While the intention is good, nothing could be further from the truth. The creative process depends upon constraints. Figuring out how to manage constraints is what creativity is all about. Having a blank slate to design whatever inspires you is what fine art is all about. It may be fun and interesting, but it most likely won't help to achieve your business goals.
Next time you're working with a designer, remember that it's your job to let the designer know about all the constraints to the process ahead of time. Along the way some of these constraints may be challenged or made irrelevant, and that's part of the creative process at work. If you don't do this, the designer will create their own constraints, and what gets designed may not be relevant to your business at all. At that point everyone's time has been wasted.
Also remember that you don't need to decide what the answer is, and have the designer just draw it up and make it pretty. Design is about problem solving. Problem solving needs constraints. Otherwise it's just decoration, and that's a different task altogether.