Business Brains

Random acts of innovation need not be so random: here's how

Posting in Design

Innovative thinking isn't just based on random acts of brilliance -- it can be forged into a systematic process that can be learned and built into all organizational operations.

We've been preaching innovative thinking since the inception of this blogsite as the best path to more enlightened management, sustainability, and growth. But innovative thinking isn't just based on random acts of brilliance -- it can be forged into a systematic process that can be learned and built into all organizational operations.

BusinessWeek recently published a special report on an emerging paradigm called "design thinking," in which innovation is systematically ingrained into processes, much as quality management or Six Sigma. It appears a number of leading business schools are incorporating design thinking into their curriculum. But how practical is it for business?

According to BusinessWeek, design thinking, while still couched in academia, is seeing success in real-world business environments as well. This discipline is most often manifested in regular workshops that incorporate free-thinking activities and exercises, with the objective of addressing and solving real-world problems.

David Kelley, founder of innovation firm IDEO,  co-founder of the d.school program at Stanford University, and one of the leading proponents of design thinking, observes that "most of us are trained in school in analytical thinking, to collect data and draw charts -- we trust that, and should continue to do that. But there's this other-side-of-the-brain kind of talent we call design thinking. Instead of ideas just appearing to you, coming out of nowhere, we believe you can innovate routinely, by having a methodology, and being good at coming up with ideas."

BusinessWeek defines design thinking as such:

"Design Thinking is a popular catch phrase for a more multi-disciplined approach to solving problems and tapping into authentic innovation -- the 'HOW' we do business. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based on the 'building up' of ideas. There are no judgments or fear of failure. This topic will cover that latest on design thinking, including efforts to redefine the idea of capitalism by blending the conversations around design thinking and social enterprise."

GE, P&G, Philips Electronics, and other companies are already applying design thinking "as a problem-solving apparatus" that can be applied companywide, the report states.

For example, P&G supports design-thinking workshops that bring together employees from across the organization to use design methods such as visualization and prototyping to solve real problems for the company.

At Philips Lighting, design-thinking activities played a key role in transforming the organization's corporate culture -- usually a huge obstacle to innovation.  As reported in BW, "the focus on design-led innovation helped Philips Lighting to transform itself over the past decade from a company that simply pushed products into the market into one that designs them with customer desires in mind.... [CEO Rudy Provoost] says the company hopes to provide the bulbs and software to enable consumers to be their own lighting designers."

What better example of turning on the light bulb of innovation than at a lighting manufacturer? Design thinking is smart business because it bakes innovation deeply into your organization's processes. And rapid-paced innovation -- among all employees and partners within the enterprise -- is key to surviving and thriving in the global marketplace.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure