Sustainable Innovation: Balancing Inspiration with Execution

Inspiration. Creativity. Meaning. Purpose. Human-centeredness. These terms are at the forefront of the very lively discussion around what design can bring to business and innovation -- and they are extremely powerful. Nicole Chen asks if design thinkers have thought enough about their new role.

Stories and initiatives on creating innovative cultures, encouraging multi-disciplinary thinking, enabling open innovation and co-creation, and developing internal structures that allow bottom-up problem-solving signal a new era of responsible and meaningful business. Six Stigma is out – design thinking is in. But is design thinking enough?

As a product designer turned business strategist, I know a thing or two about the contradictory values of the design and business disciplines. I dare to summarize by categorizing one as embracing inspiration and creativity, while the other is about cold hard facts and validation.

These two value sets seem like oil and water – they just don’t mix. But we shouldn’t be choosing between the two and taking sides – I believe that one approach cannot live without the other. In encouraging meaningful change within organizations and society as a whole, innovators must balance the inspiration and hope of design advocacy with the solid execution that business excels at.

In my day-to-day as a Strategist at Idea Couture, I work with leaders and managers in large corporations who are not as far along the design-thinking and human-centered business kool-aid as we as an innovation community are. In order to bring them along our journey to delivering on design-inspired business innovation, we must find ways to use both approaches.

Sustainable Change as a System: Beyond Products and Services

Within the context of design-led innovation, we often by default heap praise onto exciting new product innovations – the latest tablets or smart phones these days. These types of new value propositions are nice, tangible examples of innovation at work – consumers desire them, the media buzz about them, and they sure look great in an ad or in your latest annual report. But designing for innovative business needs to mean more than attacking problems at the product and/or service level.

….designing for innovative business needs to mean more than attacking problems at the product and/or service level.

Yes, if your organization involves the production of hard goods as a core capability, then it is a must to constantly think about how to create new value offerings to add to your product portfolio.

In fact, given shifts in consumer behavior and attitudes around sustainability and the need to curb our thirst for more stuff, it is absolutely critical to completely revisit your product portfolio and design more value more efficiently. There is no question that a focus on your core capability and the production of tangible artifacts should be a critical part of your organization’s innovation strategy.

But the design of new products and services are just one of the many areas that design-led innovation can contribute the success of an organization.

The design-led innovation process of insight – opportunity – ideate – iterate may reveal opportunities at the manufacturing level that, when implemented, trickles down to your customers’ experiences. Think of Inditex’s Zara or Amazon’s focus on innovating at the production and distribution management level – their ability to move product quickly around their value chain is what enables Zara to have new product on the shelves every two weeks, or Amazon to offer 2-day shipping to all their customers.

Considering opportunities for innovation along an entire value chain opens up opportunities for applying service design. How might your organization add services or other intangibles that make the entire customer experience more compelling and add value beyond the products you are offering?

Reframing your change and innovation strategy to a system level, rather than at just the product and service level, will mean that your organization may need let go of its thirst for quick and easy media attention. While strategically more impactful, system-level innovation isn’t an easy story to tell – it can be complex, messy, difficult to orchestrate and a stretch for the average consumer to appreciate and value. Designers and innovators love pointing to tangible evidence of our contributions but what market recognition is given out for re-thinking a distribution strategy or tweaking a process in a factory? Design-led innovation at a system level requires smarter storytelling — is your organization ready and committed to this dramatic shift? It should be.

Healthy Work Cultures: Defining and Measuring Success

Design-led innovation at a system level requires smarter storytelling — is your organization ready and committed to this dramatic shift? It should be.

We love to hear stories about amazingly fun and creative work cultures and how they support sustainable innovation within an organization – Zappo’s quirky corporate culture and commitment to happiness and the Googleplex’s bright colors, bean bag chairs, and endless employee perks are examples that come straight to mind when thinking about delightful places to work. Happy employees mean they will work harder and think more creatively for your organization, don’t they?

Sure, it does, we designers and innovators respond without a blink. But we still operate in a world of skeptics and for corporations that have years and years of cultural legacy that younger companies like Zappo’s and Google don’t have to contend with. Without a believer at the helm of your org, how might one create a work environment for one’s own team that invites play, exploration, personal development, and an acceptance of failure? How might these values spread throughout the legacy organization so that employees feel happy and engaged at every level and within every department?

In cases like these, it is absolutely critical that the internal innovator build solid proof points that show the benefits of these practices in a language more traditional business leaders can understand and value.

Concrete metrics like increased productivity, reduction in employee turnover, or even a reduction in health care expenses, need to complement the more emotional and human case for investing in employee happiness. Put simply, the business case needs to work for culture investment and show its potential ROI.

This requires immense creativity on the part of the internal innovator in order to define and quantify these success metrics as well as design how to capture them. Unfortunately, there are few stories being told about how innovation leaders are attacking this challenge, which points to why there are not more healthy and happy work cultures out there (eBay being an exception, with its Head of Learning and Organization Development recently sharing his story with attendees of the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference). How will *you* make the case to your organization leaders to invest more thoughtfully into employee happiness?

It’s Not Just About You: Supporting Others to Take it All the Way

Truly engaging in open innovation means that we will increasingly need to give up some of our own authority and be extremely open to the fact that others may have better ideas that we do.

We often like to think that innovation is in the minds of a select few that really get what it means and know how to orchestrate it to happen (with those of us reading this article as being among that elite!). Sure, we talk about collaboration, co-creation, and open innovation, but the way we as innovation leaders engage with this dynamic is typically as the conductor and adult in the room that has the authority to make the final decision. Truly engaging in open innovation means that we will increasingly need to give up some of our own authority and be extremely open to the fact that others may have better ideas than we do.

In executing innovation, our responsibility is to ignite waves of action, and ultimately, perhaps even make ourselves obsolete. Cisco’s John Chambers embodies this idea of networked leadership – his dramatic reorg in 2008 gave rise to a wide network of councils and boards that are independently empowered to launch new business innovations.

His investment in internal social technology platforms enables anyone in the organization to easily share ideas, lessons learned, and insights with the larger Cisco community, thereby transforming anyone with initiative to participate in its innovation process. Chambers’ focus on empowering others and relinquishing some of his own decision-making power may be what Cisco needs to innovate itself into the next decade.

Initially, as internal innovators, we need to be the ones at the forefront, working relentlessly to prove the case in environments that may not be open to it. When it comes to making innovation a sustainable value within a large organization, we absolutely need to spread our expertise and be thoughtful and generous in how we support others to become doers too. So look beyond your own needs and work hard to spread the word and support others in their development to become innovators too.

Inspiration is Easy. Execution is Hard.

There is a lot of talk within the innovation conversation about creativity, blue-sky thinking, and finding inspiration in unexpected places. Ideas that come from collaborative brainstorms, written on colorful post-its and orchestrated by innovation experts, or those that come while in the shower or on an early morning run tell great innovation origin stories. But coming up with the ideas themselves is the easy part.

The real challenge is in its execution. Turning an idea into an actual, real-life thing, whatever it is, is really really hard, especially within a large corporation with numerous stakeholders, watchful investors, a plethora of conflicting political agendas, and the inevitable leadership egos that threaten the survival of a new disruptive idea.

The incentive to maintain status quo, especially with a large organization, far outweighs the perceived risk in investing in  innovation. Bringing new ideas to life in environments that are not directly incentivized to support change translates to a lot of hard work, a lot of political maneuvering, the need to be strategic about how one engages with both supporters and detractors, the ability to work with many unknowns and immense ambiguity, and an over-abundance of personal drive and risk for the internal innovator.

The most successful internal innovators that I know and admire are not only brilliant politicians that know how to navigate complex corporate bureaucracies but are also humble professionals that are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the grunt work needed to make an initiative happen. This combination of people smarts and hands-on execution is what makes them successful in driving new innovations to the marketplace.

So if you are a design-led innovator driven by ambition and a genuine desire to bring meaningful change to your organization and ultimately, the world, be sure you’re ready for this uphill battle. Bringing disruptive innovations to the light of day will not be an easy task, no matter how inspiring or world-changing you believe your idea to be. A well-conceived strategy for engaging with detractors is an absolute must-have in making your and your team’s pathway to success as smooth as possible, along with the willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and dive into the hard challenges of execution.

Business as a whole needs to redefine itself from its traditional purpose of generating profit to the more meaningful objective of simply bringing value to its customers. The reality of what it takes to get there, however, needs to be well understood by all of us that are relentlessly pursuing this mission. Only with the right balance of inspiration and execution can we move the needle and make this world the better and more sustainable one we all imagine and aspire to. So let’s spend some time dreaming, and then get right to work in translating inspiration into reality.

By Nicole Chen

About the author:


A product designer evolved into a business strategist, Nicole Chen specialises in the application of design principles and practice to the solving of complex business challenges. As an avid advocate of the fusion between human-centered design process and business thinking, Nicole has extensive experience in developing new product and service concepts and bringing them to market, and in designing business strategies that create true market and social value.

Nicole was the founding employee of the San Francisco office of Idea Couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm headquartered in Toronto. She contributes to Idea Couture’s strategic innovation projects as a Sr. Innovation Strategist. Her previous experience includes innovation consulting for global clients representing industries such as CPG, consumer electronics, financial services, and telecommunications; and the product development and marketing of digital media solutions for Fortune 500 brands.

Nicole holds an MBA degree from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and a Bachelor of Science in Product Design from Stanford University.

  • Zufi Deo

    I agree there are high levels of friction between the vision and its accurate realisation. I, however, feel there is insufficient emphasis placed on the separating various levels of decision making in a company and the frameworks that are used for each level. For example, it is a common experience to hear about BSC or Six Sigma, etc. and how effective or ineffective they are. However, it is rare to hear or come across using these frameworks at the right level of management. For instance, these are performance measurement level frameworks and only deliver the narrow objectives initially set.

    In the business world it is very rare to come across frameworks for senior managers which are customised to help them understand the vision of the executive management, identify the relevant risks and complexities, build an interplay between between their level and those of the executive and the operational managers.

    I feel once business strategic thought accepts the need for senior managers to use customised frameworks for their level of decision making the friction we agree exits can start to be minimised.

    (These comments are based on my published work on why strategy implementation should be treated separately to execution, http://www.box.net/shared/1cgxb3z718)

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