Six Characteristics of Deep Innovation Smarts

Act of discovery of ideas

“The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

[Marcel Proust]

    There's distinction between solving a problem and finding or opening a new opportunity. In some cases we find an opportunity when we solve a problem, but in many more, we open a new opportunity by looking at things differently. So the old saying, if it's not broken it doesn't need fixing may end up holding us back reinforced too many times.

    In 1991, Stanford University Professor David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, who was a British designer, author and educator, and British designer Mike Nuttall merged their firms to form IDEO, an international design and consulting firm known as a pioneer of human-centered design—putting people at the center of their work. Another term for this process is design thinking. David Kelley's vision:

“When I started the firm that would eventually become IDEO, all I really wanted to do was work with my friends on cool projects. My dream for the future of IDEO is the same as it was back in 1978: that everyone at IDEO finds their calling; that being here feels like working with friends; that we are all enjoying our lives; that we are engaged in what feels like important work we were personally put on Earth to do.”

    Some of the cool projects they worked on are famous. In 1980, Steve Jobs asked IDEO to develop a mouse for a radical new computer, the Lisa. In 1996, working with Heartstream, IDEO helped develop a first-of-its-kind mobile heart defibrillator called the ForeRunner. In 1999, Nightline tried to describe the firm's process to the world by commissioning the design of a better shopping cart, filming the entire process, soup to nuts.

    At the firm, they believe there's no substitute for testing ideas in market, asking for feedback, spending time talking with people on the ground and observing what they do. The most valuable people in organizations have a solid grounding in the social sciences—subjects like linguistics, cognitive psychology, and/or anthropology.  

    People who fill the role of Anthropologist—the person who goes into the field to see how customers use and respond to products, to come up with new innovationsthe Cross-pollinator who mixes and matches ideas, people, and technology to create new ideas that can drive growth, and the Hurdler, who instantly looks for ways to overcome the limits and challenges to any situation.

    In The Ten Faces of Innovation IDEO's Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman say by far, the role of the Anthropologist is the single biggest source of innovation because

“people filling the Anthropologist role can be extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way—informed by their insights from the field—so that the right solution can spark a breakthrough.”

    When working with them, they say, it's not so much their knowledge that is impressive, but a sense of informed intuition,or to put it with Harvard Business School Dorothy Leonard, Deep Smarts.” They go beyond observing and documenting, to bringing people's stories to life.

    Imagine a food map that includes visualizations and statistics, and also emotional descriptions of what people wished they had eaten. This kind of emotional data that reveals true intentions add a deep dimension to learning about the role of food in people's lives.

    Or bringing a video camera into the hospital room and, with permission, record everything that is going on. Recording the comings and goings, the interruptions, the noise, the number of visitors allowed in beyond visiting hours, how staff bends rules, the impossibility of getting some rest is a great tool to help identify problems and see opportunities.

    If we were to distill down the characteristics that make anthropologists good at what they do for IDEO, in practical terms this means they:

1. practice the Zen principle of “beginner's mind—in other words, they are willing to set aside what they know in favor of approaching situations with an open mind

2. embrace human behavior with all its surprises—rather than judging they observe and being practiced in the art of observing, they develop a genuine love of talking with people and watching what they do

3. draw inferences by listening to their intuition—through deductive reasoning, they are able to develop testable hypotheses about the emotional underpinnings of human behavior

4. seek out epiphanies through a sense of “Vuja De”—this is the opposite of déjà vu, which means having a strong sense the experience is new, even though it may have occurred before once or more times, or to see something that nobody noticed before

5. keep “bug lists” or “idea wallets” —extracting potential from everyday experiences through surprises, and especially noting what seems to need fixing like bugs and problems that hide opportunities

6. are willing to search for clues in the trash bin—and in general in the most unusual moments or places, like before customers arrive, after they leave, looking beyond the obvious, and even considering ideas that were thrown away

    When we look back, good observations seem simple, but it takes effort to step away from habits and routines to look at things with new eyes. This is work that requires curiosity and involves a strong interest to learn about what others experience, to see where systems and processes break down—to find the duct tape someone placed for a quick fix.

    Anyone who's ever tried to get out of a parking lot in a crowded shopping center knows the value of understanding simple solutions to flow jams. Narrow entrance and exit paths littered with stop signs will make for a frustrating experience. Yet the architect, engineer, and designer could have come up with simpler solutions.

Executives who say their company listens to customers should spend a day with them, watch what happens:

Then you may actually start to get somewhere. If you’re interested in making something new and better, you’ve got to watch people struggle and stumble. Take note of the people who pass by a shop because the entrance doesn’t invite. Watch how would-be customers use your competitor’s offering to see why they seem to prefer it. Some of the strongest clues to new opportunities can be found in the curious quirks and habits of people navigating their ever-changing world: how they respond to their environment, or exploit a novel situation, or adapt objects for their own use—often in ways the creators of those objects never anticipated. Some of these clever human adaptations are quite intentional, while others are almost unconscious.

    Customers may not tell us what the future looks like, but they can help us improve the experience today. For breakthroughs, we should talk to people who hate our product or service, those who have opinions about how things should work, and the people who are constantly trying new things. The idea is to seek variety and contrarian views rather than being too focused on tweaking, which only leads to incremental improvements.

    The Ten Faces of Innovation is a fast read peppered with examples from IDEO's work. For many, creativity is a risk, a sort of thing we don't have time for in business. This is holding us back. We can build our creative confidence. Creative confidence comes into play when designing for innovation. Diego Rodriguez lists the twenty principles of innovating.


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