September 20, 2013
3 Ways Events Can Ignite Innovation

Companies will try anything to infuse innovation into their organizations, from “labs” for R&D to fumbled attempts at brainstorming. A successful idea can come from anywhere, but it must be desirable, feasible and viable.

When Beaufort County emergency responders dramatically improved their cardiac arrest survival rates by borrowing quick-response practices from NASCAR pit crews, it worked because it turned unique insights into actionable input — an area where traditional brainstorming methods fall short.

That’s the purpose of “design thinking” — it allows us to incorporate diverse knowledge, skills and cross-cultural understanding to deliver unique value. Here are three ways design thinking events can be used to ignite innovation in your organization:

1. Ask, “How Might We…?”

At the core of design thinking is a human approach that uses designers’ tools to solve problems. It begins with establishing a design challenge: essentially, an open question that begins with “How might we…?”

This is a purposeful question structure because it allows for a variety of responses with the use of “how,” is focused on possibility (“might”) and requires collaboration (“we”). It also provides a consistent focus for your design thinking efforts, reminding you of the reason for making this journey in the first place.

Ask participants to analyze data — derived from first-person observations of customers, users or stakeholders — in small teams and draw out themes. Then, ask them to form insights, paying special attention to insights that reveal a deeper, non-obvious understanding of the user experience. This sets the stage for ideation.

Using the “How might we…?” format once again, convert these insights into framed opportunities. Present the top ideas from each group to facilitate the cross-fertilization of ideas.

2. Design Thinking to Scale

It’s possible to employ design thinking in your enterprise alone. However, multiple-organization design thinking events widen the range of divergent knowledge, experience and capabilities. These events also enable attendees to do the following:

  • Break down functional silos through a shared, common language that doesn’t rely on specific expertise.
  • Recognize limiting factors that could be hidden by adaptations.
  • Benefit from external subject matter experts while using the core enterprise as an innovation platform.
  • Mingle with a variety of functional specialists, brought together marketplace-style to address challenges.

3. Identify the Right Structure

There are a variety of options when structuring your large-scale design thinking event. While the model is similar, the design challenge — the reason for convening — varies depending on the specific participant, customer or user need. Here are several approaches to consider:

1. Cross-Organizational

Benefits: Offers a common framework for addressing specific issues with enterprise-wide implications.

Requirements: Bringing together representatives from across the organization.

Potential Applications: Internal issues of supply chain management, customer experience and business model innovation.

2. Open Innovation

Benefits: Enables free idea flow between an organization and subject matter experts without much explanation.

Requirements: Establishing a common language for both internal and external participants.

Potential Applications: Large company innovation sessions like IBM’s global idea jam sessions, P&G’s Connect + Develop program and Kaiser Permanente’s Garfield Innovation Center.

3. Marketplace

Benefits: Uses design thinking as a common language.

Requirements: Bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders and participants to address compelling societal issues.

Potential Applications: Large, thorny issues that require stakeholder alignment; for example, I facilitated the annual Network of Leadership Scholars design thinking session, which brought together global academics and scholars to develop leadership in the “bottom of the pyramid” (the 4 billion people who live on less than $2.50 per day).

Design thinking events not only unleash the creativity of present organizations, but they also bring novel solutions to key issues that companies, market sectors and society face. Creativity is valuable, but design thinking takes it one step further: developing actionable, transformational insights that lead to breakthrough innovations.

Drew Marshall
Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He lives in central New Jersey and works with clients across the U.S. and around the world. He is a co-host of a weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; the founder, host and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog. He is also providing support for the implementation of the Design Thinking for Scholars model with the Network of Leadership Scholars (a network within the Academy of Management).