business innovation

User Centricity Through Systemic Innovation

I just finished reading Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. It’s a fascinating account of the rise & fall of Theranos, the “innovative” blood testing company that mistook innovation for a public relations campaign.

Besides its psychotically-focused leaders and their enablers, what struck me most about the story is Theranos’ approach to innovation: the siloed, need-to-know-basis of information flow; the detrimental secretiveness that  disempowered and terrified the workforce into silence; the persistent belief that innovation is only reserved for cult personalities with black turtleneck sweaters.

Theranos is an extreme example of siloed innovation. We can easily point to it and say, “That’s crazy-town. That’s not us.”

And yet, look around.

Siloed innovation is still the norm. Organizations have created innovation teams whose mission is to come up with something new, or at least find ways to improve the status quo. They are allocated fun “innovation lab” rooms with squishy balls and cushy chairs in fun colors does one innovate without a slinky (??).

We love working with these teams. They’re full of the best people who do great things for the company. They explore. They succeed. They fail, and then try again.

The rest of the workforce - separated from these teams - looks at “those innovation” people as some creative, experimental task force working on inventing new things. Mostly, the rest of the workforce doesn’t know what these people do. Sometimes, as an afterthought, there’s minimal organized effort to share the innovation mindset with the rest company. That generates some excitement. And, then mostly everyone just goes back to work.

We are back to the need-to-know-basis (albeit less extreme) of Theranos.

From the business perspective, acknowledging the need to think different and providing a safe space to experiment is a great first step. It doesn’t, however, solve the siloed innovation problem because innovation in this case is still in the hands of the few, even though “cross-functional” teams are formed from time to time to “ideate.”  

Even more than that, the idea of an “innovation team” implies that innovation is not a mindset everyone needs to practice, but more of a task for the select few with access to slinkys.

An accountant for example can join a “cross-functional” ideation workshop run by the innovation team. He arrives, contributes, and then goes back to his regular work. He is not guided to take the innovation mindset with him into accounting. His ideas contributed; his job here is done.

For a company to be “innovative,” innovation - this idea of connecting the dots in a way that produces new methods, ideas, products, services that resonate with your target audience - has to be systemic.

What does that mean?

There are many nuanced definitions of “systemic innovation.” In this context, we’ll define it as:

a non-siloed, iterative innovation process practiced by ALL people within the business organization.

This definition implies that to gain an “innovative edge,” the organization needs to ensure that innovation permeates company culture beyond a specific team or a black turtleneck sporting innovation evangelist. The organization’s policies and processes have to nurture an innovation mindset in all of its human capital.

By default, systemic innovation changes the company's DNA by cultivating a human-centered mindset as a way of life for all employees.

As designers we design things (products & services), but we also design organizations and cultures; the employee experience, as well as the customer experience. With strategy and management-led projects, we often wrestle with questions like: what would happen if the organizations employees were taught the innovation mindset as a way of life at work? How do we democratize innovation so that even the accountant feels inspired to solve problems for the business?

Figuring out a way to navigate that transformation is tricky, and I’ll explore that in future posts. Suffice to say, in practicing systemic innovation, the organization becomes one (albeit very large) innovation team.

No slinkys required.

The Path to Innovation

“I don’t want innovation,” said no business… ever. Everyone wants it because innovation means growth, market share, sustainable profit, more valuable brand equity; in other words, life.

It’s the botox of the business world. Some companies slowly tweak here and there for maintenance staying mostly in the safety of original products & services. Others go BIG with major pivots to the point where they become unrecognizable from the original entity.

Just like face fillers, companies have various options open to them on the path to innovation. We prefer using a bespoke, customized version of the Design Thinking process mainly because we’ve tried it a thousand different ways and it works, but there are many different options available. Regardless of which way you go, keep in mind all methods are tools to foster innovation. They don’t guarantee anything.

You can start with Design Thinking, morph it into something else, mash it with another method, and make your own cocktail that works for your business. It’s all OK. It’s all good. The goal is to be on the path to systemic innovation.

And, that’s really the key to business longevity: Systemic innovation.

To be “innovative,” systemic innovation must be ingrained in your company culture. It’s an iterative, repeatable process practiced by all people connected to the business on a daily basis. It changes your DNA. And, unless you establish this practice in your business, you better pray your founder is either Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Jesus. (Clearly, there must be a J in the name at least).

We use Design Thinking to jumpstart companies on the path to systemic innovation. The method offers a path to get there - not because it’s the holy grail that guarantees innovation - but, because its exercises and tools alter the way your team thinks about business challenges, as well as how they experience failure.

That type of thinking - when exponentially multiplied throughout the organization - produces organic systemic innovation.

You’re welcome.

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.

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. 


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

2. IDEO. Effective Brainstorming Techniques. Retrieved from

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

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

5. "The paradox of choice isn’t just for shoppers" - Wikipedia. The Paradox of Choice. Retrieved from

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

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

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

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