Innovation  | 6 MIN. READ

Are Your Most Valuable Innovators Hiding in Plain Sight?

ExperiencePoint, June 9, 2016


A number of months ago, IDEO announced that it had joined kyu collective, a creative collective of partner companies working together to come up with solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. While the intentions are grand, the concept is fairly simple: bring together organizations with complementary creative skills and missions, give them the tools to collaborate, invent, make, prototype and design, and it’s not only possible but likely that they’ll do great things.

IDEO’s Tim Brown saw this “networked creativity” approach as the opportunity for his organization to achieve its ultimate purpose—to apply design thinking to the large-scale, systemic issues society is facing, from climate change and global poverty to urban development and designing the future of work. These are all challenges that are ripe for the collective design practice and collaboration of like-minded organizations.

It’s a noble cause. It’s about changing the world. But what’s even more exciting is that it’s a model that’s not limited to the rarified air of world-class design firms.

In fact, great ideas can come from anywhere. They can just as easily emerge from an impromptu chat and some Post-it note scribblings over coffee as they can from a whiteboard surrounded by a group of design-savvy experts. It all comes down to the combined effect and power of two or more people coming together and internalizing, iterating and improving ideas over time.

Here’s the even better news: this isn’t a concept that only applies to the academic challenges or massive causes of our time. In the context of your own organization, whether you’re trying to break into new markets or fix a broken process, this model of networked creativity can be applied to solve the problems you’re facing here and now.

The members of that creative network might even be lurking in places you wouldn’t expect.


Democratizing Innovation

For years there was a kind of mystique around innovation, that it was a function (and indeed, a capability) open only to a select few. But more and more it’s become clear that not only are there others who can be involved in generating breakthrough ideas to address tough problems, in many cases, these people are actually better positioned to solve them.

It's a universal truth that we often forget, but the greatest innovations result from folks trying to “scratch their own itch.” If you look back at some of the most innovative organizations of our day, they all started with founders who were keen to solve a challenge they personally understood or experienced. Recognizing this universal truth, firms like IDEO have evolved from a “design for” to a “design with” approach, inviting those on the client side who have deep experience with the challenge into the process to contribute to its solution.

We have a huge opportunity to democratize innovation by bringing more people into the problem-solving process and, as a result, getting the benefits of the creativity and perspectives each brings to the table. But identifying those closest to the problem is just the first step. You also have to give them the tools to tackle it.

All innovators rely on specific skills and tools to dig into the challenge and come up with solutions that are desirable, feasible and viable. In a future post, we’ll take a closer look at this topic, but at a high level, here’s what that innovation process encompasses:

  • Reframing challenges
  • Observing users for inspiration
  • Synthesizing research to uncover insights
  • Generating creative ideas
  • Prototyping and experimenting to learn

Anyone can learn the skills and methods of great innovators and apply them to get those same advantages that IDEO talks about. Think of it as a DIY approach to innovation: when you’re faced with a problem, you can use these tools to innovate your way out of it.


Innovation Is a Team Sport

In “The Ten Faces of Innovation,” Tom Kelley tells a story about a group of Polish executives from a vending machine company who read his book “The Art of Innovation” and were motivated to go out and look for challenges users might have with their products. At a commuter train station, they observed folks anxiously looking at the vending machines before rushing past to the platform. When they asked people why they chose not to use the machine, they discovered that while many were hungry, they were worried about missing the next train. Armed with this insight, the executives installed digital clocks on each machine—a simple solution to cater to the user’s need to know the time.

As the kyu collective reminds us, creative collaboration has the potential to deliver new solutions to the world’s toughest problems. The same is true in the smaller scale of our organizations and individual communities. With the right language, skills and approach, everyone can contribute to that creative collaboration.

One global technology giant is already seeing the benefits, specifically in its procurement division. According to the Procurement Director, by equipping the people closest to the problems to come up with potential solutions, the company isn’t just getting better ideas; it’s meeting and even surpassing what external consultants could deliver—and saving a lot of money and time in the process:

"One process we facilitated generated literally thousands of ideas and was the chief input for a large-scale cost reduction effort. I knew we’d succeeded when they brought in a consulting firm afterwards, and the difference in idea generation was marginal. We showed that we didn’t need a massive, expensive consulting firm. We got the organization itself to come up with these ideas, which means you own it more, you believe in it more. This is a process that’s really driving more bang for the buck."

As Tim Brown noted in Change...By Design:

“We are at a critical point where rapid change is forcing us to look not just to new ways of solving problems but to new problems to solve.”

When you bring smart people together and give them the tools to make things happen, great things will happen.


How might we use design thinking as a powerful tool for change? Learn the four ways that can help! 

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