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Design Thinking Thoughts September 24, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Design Thinking.

Each of this week’s articles touches upon the necessity of observing consumers, or whomever the beneficiaries of the innovation will be, to understand exactly how they behave. It isn’t enough to just watch, however: we must see. Not only must we listen to their concerns or desires, we must hear them. I appreciated the importance placed on interpreting such inputs; internalizing them and making them our own so as to orchestrate positive change or effective solutions.

This was especially relevant given the assertion made in the “Innovation as a Learning Process” article that we must be cognizant of our own learning styles when working in a design process. I may not be the person who can frame a problem into its component parts, but I know once presented with that information I have the ability to generate solutions. My challenge, then, is to attempt to broaden my perspective beyond finding solutions; my goal is to improve my ability to find problems.

Fortunately, there is hope for me, as both sets of authors of these articles have acknowledged that we need not be permanently cast in our current roles. By leading, and agreeing to be led through, the design process, we can effectively improve our abilities to observe behaviors, frame them, develop criteria, and implement solutions.

One question that came up for me was how to reconcile these recommendations with what seems to be a predominant attitude in the MBA curriculum that managers should organize their operations around the strengths of their employees. By continually playing to our strengths, do we inhibit our growth? I was reminded of a concert I saw many years ago. Michael Hedges, a gifted guitarist, was tuning up between songs and was talking about the record label his contract was with, Windham Hill. “Our relationship is great,” he said. “They love my music. More importantly, they don’t tell me how to make it, and I don’t tell them how to sell it.” While that may work for a professional artist, I wonder how that specialization might hurt professionals working in today’s economy, especially given the necessity for innovation. How do we take these principles so well articulated by the authors of these articles and make them practical and functional within organizations? In other words, how far down can innovation be pushed?

I read a book a few years ago entitled “Ideas are Free”, (www.ideasarefree.com) in which the authors did extensive research about how many firms generate sustainable competitive advantage. A large part of that success has to do with how well the firms are tapping the ideas of their front-line workers: those on the factory floor, those who are interacting with customers, those dealing with suppliers, etc. Their thesis was that, in most cases, management needed to empower front-line workers to generate small ideas and the resources to implement those ideas. These ideas, because they are small, can’t be copied by competitors, and are easy to implement with very little negative consequences if they are not successful. They cited numerous examples in which companies have saved millions of dollars, or made tens of millions more, because they listened—and heard—their employees’ ideas and implemented them.

These managers were effectively helping their employees develop by listening to their ideas and allowing them to be implemented. By doing so, the employees not only become more invested in the outcome, but they also begin to grow beyond the confines of their own position. As this happens, they begin to adopt different styles of learning as their experience gains depth and significance, and they begin to incorporate new ways of thinking into their professional lives. In other words, ideas beget new ideas.



1. Sara Beckman - November 28, 2009

I am a big believer in the “ideas are free” process you describe and am glad you have chosen to link it with our design thinking conversation. Oddly enough to some, I believe that the “total quality management” movement and to some extent “sig sigma” programs are aimed at involving front-line workers throughout an organization in creatively and collaboratively coming up with ideas for process improvement, can be a form of innovation. There is no doubt that focusing on customers and their needs is valuable, but there is also great value in tapping the knowledge of those on the front lines in any organization.

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