Ideas don’t drive innovation, insights do

Enterprise learning

Posted 14 July 2023

Written by Gareth Dunlop

All ambitious companies pursue commercial opportunity by using their competitive advantage to meet market need more successfully than their competitors. At the heart of this pursuit is the development of products, services, approaches to pricing and routes to market which provide them with a head-start over others.

It may seem counterintuitive to consider that a creative process such as innovating a market offering can be done deliberately and with intention, but that’s exactly the promise which design thinking makes. 

To successfully pursue innovation we need to overcome the misconception that innovation emerges from the ether, as a somehow mystical combination of contemplation and genius. It is not something which happens to people, rather it is something people do.  Singer-songwriters might talk regularly about a melody or a riff coming upon them or flowing through them, but innovators talk of the same phenomenon much more rarely, and even when they do there is often an identifiable trigger or context.

In short, innovation is deliberate and design thinking offers the culture and process to achieve it.

deliberate /dɪˈlɪb·əˌreɪt/

(adjective) intentional or planned

(adjective) or to move, act or think slowly and carefully

Design thinking has evolved by exploring the following questions:

What if we could observe the characteristics of innovation over time and bake them in to a process?
What if we could study the key reasons why innovation flattens or fails within organisations and mitigate risk as part of process?
What if we could set up project rhythms and approaches which enabled not just action-driven phases for outputs, but contemplative phases where no output was expected or necessary?
What if we could create an environment where adults can think and create freely and without judgement, like we used to do when we were children, before creativity was conditioned out of us?
What if we could deeply understand our customers pain with the status quo and marry that up with changes and advances in technology and markets to marry up solutions with novelty and invention?

From design discipline to business discipline

Unsurprisingly, design thinking has for decades been a design practice however its recent explosion as a business practise reflects the reality that innovation is much more about deliberate process than it is about unintentional inspiration. It is a practise which has its genesis in a 1940s book by James Webb Young, an American advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson and first chairman of The Advertising Council, called ‘A technique for producing ideas’.  He was inspired to write the book by a junior colleague who remarked that Young regularly came up with great ideas and the young ambitious employee wanted to know if he could share any secrets so he too might think up great ideas.

At first Young thought it was a stupid to think that somehow creativity could be manufactured, but as he reflected on it he realized that for years he had been originating ideas in a specific way but had never stopped to consider his process, which by now had become intrinsic to how he carried out his role.  When he paused to think, he realized that his eureka moments were part of a five-step process:

Gather material – both specific and general, indexing and categorizing it as you go
Think and make connections – between all of the material that you have gathered exploring even obtuse possibilities
Relax – go and do something that’s not work – watch a movie, ride your bike, go for a walk
Eureka moments – there will be more than one – as ideas emerge write them all down
Rework – fine tune, combine ideas, expand and contract, filter out bad ideas, until the leading innovations emerge

Many of the concepts embedded into design thinking, such as separating the problem space and solution space, allowing for multiple ideas, starting with research and insights, iterating and honing have their genesis in Young’s book.  Importantly too, design thinking has evolved to recognise that innovation isn’t simply a production line process, it is also embraces a complementary mindset.

Chase down the reasons why organizations struggle to innovate

This may seem like a trivial or pedantic point, however as a quick look on Google will illustrate there are many design thinking processes which can lead to good outcomes, but there is only one design thinking mindset.  A look at the Stanford design thinking process will highlight the key concepts of the most popular methods:

Empathize: Understand the problem to be solved deeply, by observing it and using research methods such as interviews and shadowing it to absorb it

Define: Describe what you observe, with a focus on visual outputs outlining user journeys, personas, challenges, pain points and decisions, seeking to identify common or big problems

Ideate: Using some of Webb Young’s techniques, explore a full range of potential solutions for the problem defined

Prototype: Represent the solution in a testable manner, keeping it simple, failing fast, iterating quickly and improving regularly

Test: Build out a high-fidelity representation of the solution for further testing and iteration

Done right, design thinking mitigates against the three most common reasons that solutions fail to reach their fullest potential.

  1. The problem being solved doesn’t get the focus it deserves, causing the solution to diverge from user need and satisfaction.
  1. The solution is too narrowly conceived, causing incremental improvements and not disruption or competitive advantage.
  1. The solution is too blunt, misaligned with user desire and thus lacking nuance and missing opportunities to delight.

The importance of culture and mindset

It is for this reason that culture and mindset is the beating heart of innovation.  For teams to innovate they must sign up to the following creed:

  • We will resist groupthink
  • We will never say “we’ve always done it this way”
  • We understand customers deepest needs are often unspoken
  • We will avoid incorrect assumptions
  • If we fail we will fail cheap, early and forward
  • We will create physical safe space conducive to emotional safety and creativity
  • We will speak with candour and honesty
  • We are curious
  • We will be courageous enough to say things which may be perceived as stupid or contrary to accepted wisdom
  • We are all working to and bound by an agreed process and timescale

This framework has underpinned business model innovation for physical products (such as Rolls Royce charging per mile for their engines) and for software (such as the software-as-a-service revolution). It has led to product innovation such as Heinz providing tomato ketchup in an upside-down squeezable container rather than a bottle.  And it has helped designers conceive entirely new products which improve the lives of millions of people with products such as the Embrace incubator which has saved the lives of over 350,000 babies in the world’s poorest regions.

Design thinking allows us to see the world as it really is and to use the clarity this provides to make it better.

It isn’t ideas which drive innovation, but rather insights.

About the author

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth has been an associate trainer with Neueda since 2022, bringing all of his commercial and real-world experience, he delivers design thinking, innovation and continuous learning training as part of our early careers, graduate and leadership and professional skills programs.

View Gareth Dunlop’s profile