Conservation Think Tank: News, Ideas and Solutions for Energy and Water Company Thought Leaders

Is Your Company's Culture an Enemy to Innovation?

If your company is focused on products rather than customers, engineering versus design, and marketing rather than user experiences, you may be stifling innovation.

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That’s the theory behind the design thinking process, which helps make new product development and customer service initiatives more successful. While design thinking has been around for half a century, it’s only become popular within the last decade.

According to the Design Management Institute, top companies like Apple, Coca-Cola, Ford, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Target, Walt Disney and Whirlpool have embraced design thinking as a best practice.

So, what is design thinking? According to Soren Petersen, PhD, author of Profit From Design, “design thinking” may actually be a misnomer: It’s better described as “design doing” or “design making.”

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“Design thinking is an iterative process and relies heavily on prototyping to build knowledge, test and validate concepts,” Petersen says. “Design thinking helps non-designers understand and deal with ambiguity through the use of a structured process.”

With its emphasis on solutions and action, design thinking is the opposite of naval gazing. Its nonlinear approach, which focuses on discovering user needs and coming up with a strategy to meet those needs, encourages a “fast acting learning” cycle.

The goal is to minimize the risk associated with innovation by involving the customer throughout the process. Customers can help brainstorm ideas, and you can test and refine new concepts by monitoring customer behavior, which helps your company create an end product that is truly user-friendly. Design thinking goes beyond historical data and market research to also embrace customer insights and real-world experiments.

In essence, the key is to think like a designer rather than a technician in terms of creative problem solving and innovation. Here’s how to do that.

Designing an Innovation-Friendly Strategy

The design thinking process is divided into eight steps:

  • Discover - Choose a topic you find compelling and motivating. Research your topic, which includes asking your customers about it.
  • Frame and Reframe - Find the patterns and themes from your research, and reframe customer problems into opportunities.
  • Incubate - Sit back and think about what you’ve discovered so far.
  • Ideate - Generate ideas for things that will add value for your customers.
  • Decide - Rather than debating the merits of each idea, put them all up on a wall and look for the ones that have a “wow” factor in terms of desirability, technical feasibility and business viability.
  • Prototype - Make a sketch or model of an idea and invite customers and other users to test and comment on your prototype. Or make a digital ad and see how it performs with your target audience. This can help you decide whether an idea is valid enough to invest additional resources into.
  • Deliver - Launch your successful prototype into the marketplace.
  • Iterate - Collect feedback to improve your idea/prototype even after it’s launched, informing the next iteration and ensuring continuous improvement.

In an industry in which problems and their solutions are increasingly becoming more complex, design thinking can open the door to fresh innovations and breakthroughs.

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