Disrupting Innovation: Going Beyond the Buzz-Word of the Day

Why does design theory matter, what we can learn from it, and how we can practice it? I had the opportunity to speak to

Tom Hulme

Tom Hulme of Ideo

Tom Hulme (HBS ‘07), Design Director at IDEO London, on the topic of design and its integration with business, which enabled me to conclude that the concept of innovation is currently being disrupted.

Innovation is the buzz-word du jour in business lingo and jargon.  Everyone is looking for the next new idea that will revolutionize a market, product, or service.  In reality, we have an abundance of innovation, we are surrounded by it and spending huge amounts of resources generating innovation every day.  What we are gravely missing is design, a process of harnessing these innovations creating value in our world.

As defined by Merriam Webster, innovation (noun) means 1: the introduction of something new; 2: a new idea, method, or device.  By this definition humans are innovation machines. We are constantly generating new ideas, be they individual work-arounds to problems we routinely face, or highly complex collaborations in frontier fields.  We are astoundingly good at generating ideas.  Tom Hulme claims, “Ideas are pretty cheap; they are basically commoditized. The value is all in execution.”

So let’s take a look at design.  Merriam Webster defines design (verb) as: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan.  How perfect — design provides the means to execute an idea.  It describes physically building something that has purpose, one of the most critical components to creating value.  Hulme adds to this definition of design by stipulating that design is a structured approach to address human challenges; at its core, it must center on empathy for the end user.  This twist is where the opportunity exists for business leaders to employ design thinking.  Humans are great idea generators, we are even great builders, but maintaining laser focus on solving real human-focused challenges is where design brings innovation to the next level.

 Is designing a great product sufficient? Design theory suggests that we are already great at creating products that address human challenges. This product focus, however, is backward looking.  Hulme highlights that companies historically optimized the unit of design at the product level and judged success largely on aesthetics.  He suggests that today, “the business model is the new unit of design.”  Products can so easily be copied, reverse engineered, duplicated, and manufactured at such scale that great products and cost economies alone are insufficient to create and protect differentiation. What drives differentiation is framing each transaction, both internal and external, with the end user in mind: “Those who design through the eyes of the consumer….end up winning, because all the value in the business model flows back from the end user.”

Why is this paradigm so important?  Because, as Hulme sees the world, the critical challenges facing most businesses involve the increasing pace of human behavior change coupled with the well-documented pace of technology advancement (e.g. Moore’s Law):  “The world is kind of becoming more chaotic.” Faced with such chaos, incumbent businesses will be challenged to adapt. Despite this sounding rather anarchic, it presents an opportunity to design better human experiences.  An adaptive model that can leverage this chaos and maintain a human-centric view will be the true value-creator.

Design can serve as the process to construct these winning models. As such design must pervade all aspects of the business.  Hulme states, “[Design] can be agnostic to the silos in the company.” It is no longer just the marketing team or product makers that need to consider themselves designers.  The consumer does not care about these artificial silos.  They can see everything in the business, and the weak elements can hardly be hidden:  “Design can actually take the view of the end consumer and view all aspects through that, and therefore optimize the end consumer experience”.

We will inevitably face these challenges in our careers regardless of the industry each of us pursues. Hulme states, “If you think about the two terms: business and design, they are both unbelievably industry agnostic”.  This is important because it demonstrates that these terms are not meant to be constraining in their definition or application, they can intersect anywhere.

As students we have a unique opportunity to experiment with design thinking.  While these challenges highlighted above may seem daunting, we can learn from small-scale experiments. We have the time, resources, and network access to explore the intersection of business and design in industries of interest to us.  With small teams we can cultivate key design skills through quick prototyping of human-centered products and processes.  Hulme’s a fan of this approach and says, “In a zero risk environment like business school why wouldn’t you… if it is a disaster you can talk about the learnings, and if it is a success you’ve got a win under your belt.”  This approach to prototyping and building-to-learn or even launching-to-learn is powerful for anyone looking to explore the integration of design and business.  With this small-scale design practice under our belts, we will be prepared to go beyond just innovation and products, and create value not only for our organizations but also for the customers we serve.

 Check out the following links for more information on Tom Hulme, his blog, or OpenIDEO, an open source design thinking platform.

Hulme’s bio: http://www.ideo.com/people/tom-hulme

Hulme’s blog: http://weijiblog.com

Hulme’s twitter handle: @thulme

OpenIDEO:  http://www.openideo.com/

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