5 Ways to Ignite Innovation in the Digital Age

From Design Sprints to Lightning Decision jams and Design Thinking, Douglas explores the methods world-leading businesses are using to find and work their innovative edge.

In the digital age, the business cycle for products and services has collapsed significantly and that has led to an incredible — and disruptive — compression of the innovation cycle.

Organizations now need to innovate at a higher and faster rate than was previously required — Amazon being an extreme example, where new features or code are released to the company’s sites every 11 seconds. This compressed rate of cycling leads to a perpetual state of change and innovation for a lot of organizations.

Change is something to fear. Or it’s something to figure out. You pick.

Engagement Before Innovation

There’s an ongoing argument about who really said “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (most attribute it to Peter Drucker), but no one argues the truth of the statement. From armies to families to business units, you can have the best operational ideas, but you’re only as good as your people. So if your focus is on a product and you haven’t first developed your culture, you’ve fundamentally failed the first point of order, which is: People are the product.

“Your ability to develop products — and develop products that are relevant to society — is completely premised on the internal health of your organization,” says van Toorn, whose Victoria-based consultancy works with the UN ecosystem, moving world governments toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Teamwork is key to mastering radical innovation. The people who make up your team are an untapped resource for ideas that can transform your industry. Yet if they’re stuck in rigid roles — or worse, don’t feel comfortable sharing ideas — those ideas will remain blocked. See if you can find ways to support creativity and experimentation at every level of your organization. Ideas shouldn’t just come from the top. Invite staff to give input at all times.

Embrace Design Thinking

Design thinking is a buzz phrase, but it’s more than trendy — it’s a valuable method of creative problem solving long used by designers.

“It’s very much a holistic approach to problem solving where you don’t lock in too early on a problem definition, but you go round several trial attempts to solve it before you actually decide what the problem is,” says David Dunne, professor and director of MBA programs at UVic’s Gustavson School of Business.

Design thinking involves trying to understand the problem by framing and reframing it, paying careful attention to how you’re defining the problem to begin with. This problem-definition stage typically takes up the most time.

Once the problem is understood, the work is to get a deep understanding of who is affected by the problem. Then it’s time for rapid prototyping — quickly making an artifact or simulating an experience to get a read on whether it’ll work.

Lightning Decision Jam and Design Sprint

These methods share an end goal of leveraging creative thinking and maximizing organizational efficiency.

The Lightning Decision Jam, developed by AJ&Smart, a product design-sprint agency in Berlin and San Francisco, is a process involving your team, over a few days in a solid problem-solution sequence. Mural, a company that builds tech products to increase creativity and scale innovation, has a walk-through of the process on their website at mural. The Jam can help your team find its direction more quickly.

Design Sprint, which is used by Google, Nike, LEGO and Facebook, as well as in industries ranging from medical research to real estate, is a multi-day process (typically five days) where team members gather to understand the problem, ideate, make a decision about which idea(s) to test, and then prototype before testing the idea with an audience.

Both Design Sprints and Lightning Decision Jams have their roots in design thinking, and both can be brought to your organization by a range of local experts. For DIYers, you can learn a lot more about each online, to test whether it would work in your organization. Google also has an open-source design sprint kit online that’ll guide you through the process. Just Google it!

Face-to-Face For Good Ideas

The idea that face-to-face is best flows from the engagement piece above. Innovative ideas weaken the farther they travel from the point of creation. When the idea is passed along the chain without those people also having a clear understanding of the idea’s value, the power of that innovation fizzles. That’s why iterating — or implementing — via email is a death sentence for innovation.

Our best thinking is done in a room, analog, with each other. Being able to get three months of work done in three days requires an in-person commitment, says van Toorn. Find ways to connect people face to face for high-magnitude, low-frequency work, where the key players are in the room, focused solely on one issue for a short burst of time.

But what we typically find in organizations is the reverse: high-frequency, low-magnitude communication. “We send emails to each other,” says van Toorn. “If [collaboration] is done in the way it’s currently being done, we’re not really moving the needle. We have not improved trust. We have huge [societal] problems that we’re not allowing ourselves to solve — we rely too much on old processes to solve new problems.”

Nurture a Mindset of Experimentation

Accept that innovation is not a linear process, so carve out time for experimentation. If your team is 100-per-cent-busy doing operational work or executing tactical short-term things, you will not have the kind of slack in the system to discover new ideas and approaches.

The experimental mindset is a key attribute of organizations that can innovate. Be willing to try things and experiment, then invest in some of those things in a sensible fashion.

Help your team work toward having rich conversations about ideas.

“If we want people to show up with whatever their expertise is, whatever their materials are, that’s basically being open to conversation in a non-confrontational fashion,” Mack Adams says.

“I always talk about these workshops as containers for high-quality conversations with a shared understanding. And that’s really where the good stuff starts to come out.”

Next Steps

If you’ve got the engagement piece down and your team shares a vision and a context, you can foster healthy debates about what’s the best approach, or why or which features may or may not be more or less important to your organization.

As Adams says: “It’s getting a team aligned around that shared understanding so that they can move in a cohesive fashion toward whatever their destination may be.”

This article is from the February/March 2020 issue of Douglas.