Innovation At the Intersection of Design & Business

Innovation At the Intersection of Design & Business

Last week Gianfranco Zaccai, CEO and Chief Design Officer at Continuum, a global innovation and design consultancy, kicked off the first Creative Collisions innovation breakfast. 70 businesss owners, marketers, designers and developers gathered to hear Gianfranco talk about his work with global brands and how he and his team were able to use a design process to innovate in a wide range of categories. He points out the need for all organizations to use empathy as a foundation for understanding, and understanding as the impetus to change organizations, both for-profit business and non-profits. 

One of the key approaches you take is to go beyond what’s being asked of you and to dig deeper. How does someone who’s being pressured by a boss or client to deliver “the thing” create enough space to do this? It sounds risky.

I like the philosophy of “Start Anywhere But Step Back”. When people ask us to do something, they need it done. So, we have to understand what their schedule is and what their issues are. But one can always step back to learn more about the context of a problem and the values of its stakeholders to uncover opportunities. Sometimes stepping back provides more understanding and more nuance to what we will be doing when moving forward. Sometimes stepping way back uncovers the opportunity for radical and even game-changing innovation. In most cases, we can uncover something more meaningful and provide more value in the deliverable than what is expected. When that happens, even on a small scale, we usually find that the next time we’re given the opportunity to step back even further.

Most CEOs have two pressing concerns on their mind: 1) What’s going to happen in the next quarter to the next fiscal year; and 2) “Am I still going to be in business in a few years?” There’s an appropriate answer to both of those. One can step back in order to do business better over the next few quarters. And one can step back more deeply to find new opportunities to make a business or organization still viable when the current business model, service, or product offering is no longer relevant or when competitors are attacking from all sides.

Experiencing Ideas

I like your approach that people can’t judge an idea by just seeing it or talking about it; they have to experience it. How do you let people experience prototypes, for both physical objects and in-person experiences?

There are great models to do this. Cartoons make you experience something with just a doodle and some targeted text. They connect with us in a fundamental and very emotional way. Movies aren’t real but make us believe things as well. In between these two extremes there are lots of tools and techniques we use to have people experience something that does not yet exist and to learn from their reactions and behaviors. We can make a simple storyboard, build models and props, role-play, create animations, and create interaction simulations all the way to fully working prototypes and learn from both successes and failures all along the way. Marcel Marceau, the great pantomime, made us experience him climbing out of a glass box, even though he had no box, and both he and we profited from the experience

One of my favorite tools is what I call a “Frankenstein” model, what engineers may call a Breadboard with emotion added. We can mock up a really rough idea of something to see how it works through different senses and how people react to it. NASA most likely used this on the Apollo project: they may have nailed stuff to a piece of wood to see if something worked, just barely, to demonstrate feasibility. They learned from mistakes and kept improving it and let the people who would be flying it test it. Some of those early pieces of wood became models for what ultimately went to the moon and created a landmark experience.

Role-playing is another great model for simulating and testing and experiences, especially in services. Service experiences are enhanced or frustrated by all sorts of things: physical and virtual space, by people, and by tools. We can design and prototype spaces, tools, and human interactions to make them better. Apple does this so well at the Apple Stores where they’ve created beautiful spaces where you can see and try their products, and a knowledgeable employee comes to you to help if needed but the products also speak for themselves. Finally, the customer can order, pay and check out without waiting in line. None of that is by chance; the entire service experience is designed.

Design = Shaping Our World

While most people still think of Design as something to do to a product (product design), a graphic (graphic design), or a space (Interior Design or Architecture) you’re doing a lot of design work in each of those areas but also work that that isn’t about any of those. How do you define design work?

Design is what people do consciously to shape the world we live in. There are some things we “designers” can’t design but, educators, scientists, administrators, and legislators can. We can help these “other designers” do their jobs better by helping them to understand and connect with the people they are trying to serve by designing various touch points along the way. It starts by learning through what we call design research, then extracting meaning from all the data gathered, and ultimately, we execute based on that understanding. That is the objective of the design of experiences. Experiences include physical objects, spaces, digital interfaces and human interactions, but innovation and multi touch point, compelling experiences requires the design of an enabling organization to make them real. We’re increasingly are called in to help leaders design their organizations.

Many organizations are learning that they need to be more innovative. But the culture of many—if not most— is to make sure what was working yesterday continues to work tomorrow. When you have an organization that has developed a successful culture of best practices, it’s hard for them to do things differently in order to be in business in the perhaps not so distant future.

In order to allow for organizational change while keeping a focus on what’s been working, leaders often need to create an organization within an organization, one that can be empowered to identify new ways of doing things, prototype and make them real, and then spread them throughout the company. Organizational design is really teaching people to be more flexible, more collaborative, more adept at learning from their stakeholders and from their mistakes, and by rapidly simulating and prototyping new ideas, and to have that behavior rewarded.

At Continuum, I like to say we do Innovation by Design because we have designed and continue to evolve an innovative organization of curious and talented collaborators—an organization made up of people who can explore and identify the opportunity for people-centric innovation. More often, we partner with client organizations to make their new ideas real and leave them with a model for carrying on this implementation.

Preparing for What’s Ahead

“The Curve Ahead” is a book you recently reviewed, which is not in print yet. Why is it important for today’s businesses and organizations?

The Curve Ahead, by Dave Powers, describes the rise and fall of businesses. The “curve” refers to the seemingly inevitable trajectory of initially successful businesses that eventually see their growth slow and decline. It used to be that the curve ahead was on the order of decades. But now change is happening at such a rapid pace and it’s happening all over the world. You see disruptive changes in fields like transportation, leisure travel, healthcare, insurance, banking, media, and even education, to just name a few.

Every business needs to understand this eventual reality, and especially businesses that have been successful in the past because they had a great idea and are basking in its success. The curve means that sooner or later something will happen and their business will start to drop. Sometimes, like in the cases of Blockbuster or Blackberry, the drop is a cliff.

Businesses have to discover ways of stretching the curve they’re on while searching for the genesis of a new one— a new trajectory that will take them to a different level. It may be something that requires them to cannibalize their current business, before someone else takes it away, and/or, at the same time, it may require evolving and extending their current business model through smaller innovations. Or it may be a totally new business that comes out of the ashes of old one. Either way, innovation by people-centered design may lead to the answer.

Gianfranco Zaccai, President and Chief Design Officer of Continuum

Gianfranco Zaccai, President and Chief Design Officer of Continuum

Sketchnote picture created by Matt Heywood of The Image Farm.

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