Attack of the Design Thinking Zombies

Quality circles.  Reengineering.  Knowledge Management.  These are headstones you’ll see in the management graveyard.  We recently posted about Business Week’s Bruce Nussbaum adding “Design Thinking” to that list, but according to this, this and this, more than a few folks are calling for the corpse to be exhumed and the pulse checked.

According to Fast Company’s Grant McCracken:

In sum, it is wrong to say that design thinking has given us “all the benefits it has to offer,” and it’s wrong to call it a “failed experiment.” I think we should be arguing that design thinking is just getting started. And a good thing, too; we need this approach more than we ever did.

Are you new to the concepts of DT?  Management Roundtable recently held a free webinar with Design Thinking expert, Matt Belge.  An on demand replay of this webinar is available at the link below.

MRT Free On-Demand Webinar: Design Thinking

Articles linked to in this post:

Join us for MRT’s upcoming workshop:
“Design Thinking: Extreme Customer-Driven Innovation”
October 29-30, 2012 in Boston.


Should customers be closed out of Open Innovation?

Customers are a “necessary evil”.   Please don’t take that the wrong way.  I think almost everyone can agree that our businesses live and die with our customers’ willingness to support us, but it’s also true that they can be  unfair critics, demanding and needy, and don’t always reward your efforts to please them with their wallets.  They will often say one thing and mean something completely different.  It’s like every other relationship you probably have except this one pays your mortgage.

Open Innovation is a tool that often implores you to engage stakeholders from all channels, customers very much included, as sources of breakthrough product ideas.  There are many case studies and examples of how customer portal websites and other “crowdsource” methods have led companies to new products and features much more efficiently than traditional internal-only efforts.

However, in his article on Fast Company, “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthrough Products,” Jens Martin Skibsted points to Apple and Ikea as companies that shun attempts to have their designs led by users.  Among the issues he highlights is that users can’t predict future demand, that the issues they are focused on can stifle creativity and the that the majority of user input will lead to a lack of differentiation.  He makes some good points.

Diving further, one could say that customers and users certainly CAN be valuable sources of innovation, if employed for the right reasons and not just to give them a “seat at the table.”  At Ericsson, for example, they proclaim to be moving to a more Open model because of how mobile technologies are creating networks and communication access that couldn’t be tapped before.  Should he listen to Skibsted and ignore that new found access?

On a deeper note, Lead User Innovation, as researched by MIT’s Eric von Hippel, very much can be a predictor of future demand and a source of bleeding edge innovation.  Lead Users, if you are aware, are highly engaged customers who often take it upon themselves to alter and modify products to better suit their specific uses.  For example, farmers who hack tractor configurations to be more efficient for certain crop types have exposed manufacturers to very lucrative emerging market segments and product design innovations.

So are customers useless for innovation?  Are projects such as Kraft Foods running customer contests that result in multiple new lines of cream cheese not a worthwhile exercise?  I don’t know the P&L of how that particular business has performed, but reports are that they are a major success.  But for every one of these, it’s not difficult to imagine a wake of failures where listening to customers too closely have resulted in money pits and market embarrassments.

I think the important lesson isn’t to stop getting ideas from customers, but to be careful in how they’re used.  Like any type of external idea you receive for your business, from customers, consultants, research firms or anywhere, it is still your responsibility to make a disciplined business case for its implementation, the part of product development that customers just won’t do for you.

Is chaos a prerequisite for creativity? Thoughts on Design Thinking…

A recently scheduled FREE webinar from MRT has got me thinking about creativity and the optimal conditions that fuel it.  The webinar is about Design Thinking, an approach towards product development that guides one to uncover the root of the customer’s problem that your product or service solves.

Along the way, I stumbled upon an article called “Design Thinking is a Failed Experiment” by Bruce Nussbaum, perhaps best known as a managing editor at BusinessWeek, where he declares the decade of Design Thinking to be closing.  But is he a credible enough authority to make said declaration?  Of course he is, because he has a new drum to beat called “Creative Intelligence.”  Even innovation methods need to be refreshed to look innovative again.  It’s a “meta” thing.

There was one piece of Nussbaum’s article that caught my attention.  The factor that he says marginalized corporate implementations of Design Thinking methods is that:

Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to [sic] well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation. Call it N+1 innovation.  CEOs in particular, took to the process side of Design Thinking, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes.

This is something not enough people realize when they talk about “best practices.”  With best practices, the standard warning is that copying does not work, one must customize best practices to the culture, environment, industry, etc.  In fact, one should probably utilize Design Thinking in order to properly implement Design Thinking.

Companies often don’t follow this advice, however, or they take it the wrong way and customize so much of the practice that its benefits are also removed as part of the process.  This is similar to how hospital patients often contract diseases like staph infections as an unintended consequence of trying to be cured.

In relation to Design Thinking, what Nussbaum means is that creativity often requires a lack of structure, a type of chaos if you will, to illuminate an insightful solution.  According to him, once the “suits” got a hold of it, they threw the baby out with the bath water.  Corporations and their HR departments are known for over complicating things as simple as a #2 pencil requisition procedure.

This does not necessarily mean that Design Thinking is a “failed experiment,” as Nussbaum asserts.  It does, however, point to a leadership failure that can cripple even the smartest corporation.  Once again, this famous saying gets pulled out from the bag, as an old business Yoda used to hammer into me, “a fool with a tool is still a fool.”   Please don’t be that fool.

Want to learn more about Design Thinking?

Join us for MRT’s FREE Webinar:

“Design Thinking: Extreme Customer-Driven Innovation”
Wednesday, August 22, 2012

R&D Metrics: Should you punt on fourth down?

I play Fantasy Football every year and it is an entirely metrics-based pursuit.  If you’ve been under a rock, on Mars, with your fingers in your ears, you probably don’t know that fantasy sports take the statistical numbers from real players, teams and games and turn them into a composite score for fantasy team managers to compete against.  Maybe that doesn’t sound very sexy or fun, but it has become a billion+ dollar industry in the last several years.  It is HUGE.

Managers of product development have often fantasized about having the ability to manage ‘by the numbers’ similar to professional sports.  The allure is quite simple to understand, I mean, who wouldn’t want a binary system for decision making, if you end up wrong, you have your posterior fully covered by math.  Nobody questions the hard, cold logic of math, right?

But from experience, we know that math isn’t always a straight line, and that separated from human intuition, can often be dangerous.  Intuition is often mistaken for “guessing,” when in reality it is more like “subconscious logic” that taps into real data that your awake brain is not fully aware of.

In addition, humans faced with numbers often still need to interpret them, which puts a very inexact science on top of exact figures.  Back to football, a great example of this is Arkansas high school football coach, Kevin Kelly.  Coach Kelly is known for taking standard football conventions and standing them on their heads.  By his interpretation of the numbers, Coach Kelly never punts on fourth down and almost always attempts an onside kick after scoring a touchdown.  In one particular game, his team scored 29 points before his opponent ever got a possession.  Football purists may cringe, but it’s hard to dispute his results, after all, just look at his numbers!

MRT’s “Metrics” workshop addresses how to use the logic of measurement without losing sight of the end goals and ensuring that metrics never supersede the project vision, check it out:

R&D Metrics: Quantifying Portfolio Decisions, Projects and Profits with Instructor Wayne Mackey

Article: Down 29-0 before touching the ball

Open Innovation is more than just Crowdsourcing

Like every management technique, Open Innovation has its critics (a sign you have arrived perhaps?).  The majority of the hindsight in this instance likes to trumpet that OI is not gaining enough traction in industry due to a high failure rate and lack of measurable return on investment.

This week on Business Insider (“The New—And More Profitable—Way To Look At Open Innovation“, 7/13/11), Michael Richard Jackson Bonner of Hypios, a problem solving consultancy located in France, says that OI has lost its luster but that by analyzing its shortcomings one can realize its appropriate value.

But something’s not completely kosher in his thesis.  Forgetting the fact that I am (admittedly) irrationally suspicious of anyone with four names, you first have to realize that the article’s author only seems to equate Open Innovation with Crowdsourcing.  Continue reading