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VOL. 127 | NO. 105 | Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Try ‘Design Thinking’ for Innovation

By Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber

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While the word innovation thunders from the boardroom, few companies actually build a sustainable process for generating real solutions that create value. Instead, they hastily focus on an un-validated and over-caffeinated pet idea of the CEO. Or worse, they spend a lot of time and resources recreating a slightly different version of their same core offering.

These too-common scenarios are not innovation. Real innovation is not a product line extension or an additional feature. Spare us. The world is already surfeited with such nonsense.

Real innovation requires thinking outside of your own business paradigm. Real innovations that make major traction in the market solve problems people didn’t know they have. Real innovations get out of the office and embody the matter. They walk in the shoes of the intended audience, even visit them at home or their office. They begin with empathy, then follow an iterative process and then reap substantial rewards.

This formal innovation process was named just a few years ago. While it remains contested, Design Thinking is a set of principles – from mindset and roles to process – that work for consumer products, software, services, even in the social sector.

Design Thinking is a method for solving complex problems. Think of Design Thinking as installing a new operating system for life: it’s that revolutionary. Looking at the world with an inspired eye for redesigning every aspect that could be improved is the mindset. There are few experiences that could be not be improved.

As noted by Tim Brown, now the CEO of IDEO, there are there spaces to explore, which overlap: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

Design Thinking follows a seven-step framework: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. These steps overlap one another and are repeated in iterations to produce concepts that work.

While Design Thinking came out of product development, graphic design, and engineering fields, its processes and spaces are being adopted by research and development, marketing and product management departments in many firms across the globe.

The process requires some non-linear thinking and does not allow for the devil’s advocate role to be voiced. For these reasons, many companies cannot allow it into their culture – to their own detriment and decline.

Companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Target, Apple, IKEA, as well as Bank of America, the Mayo Clinic and a host of others you know by name, are defining market trends and market cap by employing elements of Design Thinking in their innovation efforts.

If your boardroom and hallways thunder with the call to innovate, get real. Try some processes with proven efficacy. Don’t just rush into tomorrow the same as yesterday with a little more haste and stress. Try Design Thinking or some of the other frameworks at your disposal, which we will outline in future columns.

Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber run the Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. Visit www.southerngrowthstudio.com to learn more.

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