Design Innovation

Design Thinking ≠ Innovation

Design thinking does not guarantee innovation.

It’s a process structured to get you thinking in a different way; to get your siloed teams to think differently together; to focus on your customer or whatever human you’re serving with your product/service; to get you out of your stale comfort zone; to get a fresh perspective on your business; to put existing parts of your business into new strategic combinations.  

All that may result in innovation, but only when you put down the resources and commit to bringing your validated ideas to market. That requires lots of hard work by multiple teams in your organization. That’s innovation.

And yet, what Design Thinking does guarantee is a path to innovation; the first few well-travelled bricks on the yellow brick road in the right direction. It’s a guaranteed way to connect you to your customers (or whoever your product/service serves). And, it’s definitely a tool to rewire your brain and your company’s DNA in the process to become more human-centered in your decisions.

Viewing the method of Design Thinking as one that guarantees innovation will leave you disappointed. You’ll miss the journey in the way to your destination. And, the journey here matters a lot.  

Invention ≠ Innovation

We use a lot of words interchangeably in conversations. If we use something long enough to stand-in for something else, and if the difference is subtle enough, eventually people will come to accept the interchangeable meaning.

In recent conversations, I noticed people use innovation to mean coming up with new ideas. We “innovate” to come up with new products or services. “Innovation” changed the industry. In almost every thesaurus these two words (innovation & invention) are listed as synonyms. But, there is a subtle difference.

Invention is a leap of faith. It represents a unique idea so different from anything else that even the Patent Office agrees it’s yours. Innovation, on the other hand, is the process of bringing your invention to market with the goal of changing human behavior to lead to mass adoption.

The telephone is an invention. Your use of the telephone every day to call your grandma - instead of sending a letter - is innovation. The iPhone as a device is an invention. Your addiction to it on a daily basis is innovation.

The difference between invention and innovation is the degree to which human behavior changes. It’s the difference between a new “thing” and how much that new “thing” affects the people around you. In startup land, this is the idea vs. effective execution.

This subtle distinction makes a huge impact in world of UX, CX, Service Design, and Design Thinking.

Clients want earth-shattering, new, and shiny ideas that will give their products or services a “competitive edge.” That’s invention. The smart ones come looking for strategic ways to change human behavior through iterative, human-centered, incremental trial & error processes. That’s innovation.

One Failure at a Time

Have you ever really, truly failed at something? What I mean to ask is, have you ever tried something hoping to get a result that you never even came close to attaining? How did you deal with this failure? Did you decide to let it define you, or did you choose to redefine it?

Recently, we've come up against one or two of these types of failures in our efforts to bring Design Thinking to a wider audience. We started to let this define our work, but then managed to catch ourselves. 

Instead of going down a path of fear, we decided upon a path of knowledge. We took a long, hard, and, most importantly, honest look at our failures. This honest view point (i.e. Admitting to ourselves that "We did not come close to succeeding here.) allowed us to ask WHY we failed, then alter our plans to try again.

It's a simple concept in theory, but one of those that can be extremely difficult to put into practice. Once we did put it into practice, however, that is when the successes started to unfold.

One failure at a time. Step by step. 

What If You Pushed Aside Doubt?

The ethos "There is no such thing as failure" is not new, but when was the last time you, or your team, actually practiced it?

Sure, embracing it too tightly can mean business demise, but what if you held on to the concept just a little?

What if the next time you had an ideation or design session you didn't allow doubt or potentiality of failure into the room just for that hour or so? What would you find?

Maybe nothing, or maybe something really amazing. [1, 2]

Why not try and find out?


1. Tsaousides, T. (2017, December 17). Why Fear of Failure Can Keep You Stuck. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com

2. Kalb, I. (2013, June 1). Could Fear of Failure Limit Your Success. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com

Don't Forget to Fail

Many a business person has been inspired by the story of Spanx founder, Sara Blakely [1]. After-all, she IS a self-made billionaire whose passion and perseverance have chiseled out one of the most successful businesses of our time. Who could deny being inspired by that?

Personally, I know many friends and colleagues who have worked to learn from and mimic her actions in an effort to foster their own business success (myself included). However, after reading a recent interview with Ms. Blakely [2], I realized there was one foundational milestone that many of us have been overlooking in this quest.

Failure.

In the interview, Sara Blakely tells us that, "When I was growing up my father would ask me, 'What have you failed at this week?' His lesson was that trying was just as important as the outcome. Not trying something was failure."

The effect of this practice? Blakely tells us "It allowed me to be freer in trying things in life and to embrace failure as part of a growing process."; a mindset that allowed her to try to make a business out of pantyhose with the legs cut off, instead of stopping before she got started due to a fear of failure. 

I believe it is this mindset which is the cornerstone to all the other steps along her journey, yet so many of us overlook it. Instead, we define failure as an unfavorable outcome to some event, and look to avoid it at all costs.

Our main method of avoidance? Not trying at all.

The irony is that this avoidance tactic is not only not helpful, but it is the surest way to stifle any innovation.


1.  Wikipedia. Sara Blakely. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

2. Schreiber, G. Sara Blakely: The Spanx Billionaire Who Thrived On Failure. Retrieved from http://real-leaders.com

Using Design Thinking to Improve Brainstorming

A few weeks ago, I came upon an article from my alma mater, entitled ‘Thirty Ideas Are Better Than One’. Given that Design Thinking and idea generation was on my brain, I had to know more.

I began reading and when I got to the line, "30 ideas are always better than one", I paused. I asked myself, “Are more ideas really always better”? I thought back to the many brainstorm sessions I'd been in. Most of them generated amazing ideas in large quantities, but many of those ideas were lost along the way. 

As I considered the results of these sessions, I realized the answer to my question was "More ideas are usually better, but knowing how to prioritize and validate those ideas is where the real magic happens". Allow me to explain further. 

"Brainstorming" is a term most of us know and love. It’s an older term, “popularized by Alex Faickney Obsborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination”. [1] Given that it’s a fairly inexpensive and effective way to generate cross-functional ideas (if you have the right players in the game, of course), teams like the one referenced in the article often utilize the exercise.

There is no doubt that brainstorming is a solid method for idea generation. It's a technique heavily utilized by most if not all of the major players in the innovation and design industry [2], and it's something we employ often at Design Think Labs. 

Despite knowing that brainstorming can help teams produce more ideas and fast, it’s important to realize that doing so is only half the battle. Many times teams go into brainstorming sessions and come up with a slew of ideas only to have the work get lost when the team leaves the room. 

Why? 

There are two key reasons. Either the problem statement was not clearly identified at the beginning of the session leading to unfocused, ineffective ideas [3], or the ideas themselves are good but so numerous that teams have no idea where to begin. In this second case, the team freezes. Instead of chopping away at making the ideas a reality, they choose to look elsewhere for innovation. [4, 5]

One method for combating these problems is to call in Design Thinking. The Design Thinking process isn’t revolutionary, nor is it inaccessible. In fact, user-centered design practitioners have been utilizing it since the industry's inception. However, the method isn’t only for design practitioners, and once it's learned can be used time and again to solve problems like these. 

Using the method solves the brainstorming problems in several ways. 

First, when using Design Thinking as a framing of and extension to brainstorming, one's brainstorming efforts are inherently fusing the human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. [6, 7]

Brainstorming when your teams’ brains are primed in this way, means the ideas you produce, even those that seem way “out there”, are anchored at the intersections of user needs, business needs, and technical possibilities. Sure, the ideas may and should push the boundaries in these three regards, but because they are rooted at this meeting point, they’re sure to have a level of context necessary to at the very least add value and understanding to your outcome.

To take this point further, we know that Design Thinking allows a team to define the right problem, ask the right questions, and, when ideas are created, to choose the best answers. [8] Knowing this we can confidently say that framing any idea generating brainstorming session with Design Thinking will sit your team and the ideas your team generates at the golden intersection necessary for innovation. [9]

After you've used Design Thinking to solve the issue of ineffective idea generation through brainstorming, you'll need to know what to DO with all the new, effective ideas. Thinking like a designer solves this as well. Inherent in the Design Thinking process is a framework for selecting the best ideas to test, then testing those ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise. [10]

By framing brainstorming which so easily allows us to generate ideas, with the Design Thinking methodology which inherently ties our foci to the intersection of user needs, business needs, and technical feasibility, the problems which surface far too often as a result of brainstorming, cess. This means at the end of the sessions the team is left with a slew of effective ideas and a roadmap defining what to DO with those ideas. 

It's true. Thinking like a designer takes your brainstorms to a whole new level.

So I ask you this: Are more ideas always better than one?

I think by now you know the answer. 


1. Wikipedia. Brainstorming. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

2. IDEO. Effective Brainstorming Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com.

3. Perspective on problem definition - "It is important to spend time agreeing on the problem to be solved. A whole round of divergence and convergence on the problem statement can be done before giving people a chance to suggest solutions." - Markman, A. (2017, May 18). Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong. Retrieved from https://hbr.org

4. "Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies." - Spradlin, D. (2012, September). Are You Solving the Right Problem?. Retrieved from https://hbr.org

5. "The paradox of choice isn’t just for shoppers" - Wikipedia. The Paradox of Choice. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org

6. “which IDEO calls design thinking, brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.” - IDEO. Design Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com.

7. “a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way." - Brown, T. (2008, June). Design Thinking. Retried from 

8. “Within these steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen." - Cohen, R. (2014, March 31). Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation. Retrieve from https://www.forbes.com

9. Bole, K. (2012, December 4). Design Science: UCSF Project Applies Innovative Thinking to Research. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu

10. “There are some problems that are not solvable. You might not find a technology that’s going to solve a particular problem, but what you want to do is discover that quickly. So, the design thinking methodology doesn’t necessarily generate better ideas than competing methodologies. It’s just that this methodology allows you to test your ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise.” - Fyffe, S. & Lee, K. (2016, January 19). How Design Thinking Improves the Creative Process. Retrieved from https://www.gsb.stanford.edu