The September issue of the Harvard Business Review features a spotlight on The Evolution of Design Thinking. With four articles on the subject, HBR’s overriding message is that design is no longer just for physical products, being increasingly applied to customer experiences, innovation, business strategy, and complex problem solving.
Last week I discussed this expanded view of design thinking based on one of the articles, - Design Thinking Comes of Age. I now want to turn my attention to a second article in the HBR issue, Design for Action, which applies design thinking not to the actual artifact being designed, - whether product, service, business strategy, or complex system, - but to a very different kind of problem: the introduction of the designed artifact into the world.
When first introduced, disruptive innovations are likely to encounter stiff resistance, both within one’s own organization and in the marketplace, - otherwise we wouldn’t call them disruptive. The article argues that we should apply design thinking to the launch of the disruptive innovation itself - a process they call intervention design.
Design for Action was co-written by Tim Brown and Roger Martin. Tim Brown is the CEO of IDEO, - the firm most associated with this more general view of design. Roger Martin is in the faculty of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, where he served as Dean from 1998 to 2013. He’s a strategic advisor to CEOs around the world and the author of a number of books.
Not surprisingly, many companies are still not sure what is meant by design thinking, let alone its potential business value. For a long time, we’ve associated design with hard, tangible products, - e.g., a smartphone, laptop, flat-panel TV, car; with physical objects like bridges and buildings; and with concrete spaces like stadiums and parks. It’s much harder to appreciate the value of design when applied to user experiences, customer service, systems, organizations, and similar soft, ethereal entities. Though they account for the growing complexity in our lives, these softer entities feel like a kind of intangible dark matter in our midst that you cannot see or touch.
“But as the complexity of the design process increases, a new hurdle arises: the acceptance of what we might call the designed artifact - whether product, user experience, strategy, or complex system - by stakeholders…” write Brown and Martin. “In fact, we’d argue that with very complex artifacts, the design of their intervention - their introduction and integration into the status quo - is even more critical to success than the design of the artifacts themselves.”
The concept of intervention design is brilliant but even harder to explain unless, you’ve personally gone through the experience of trying to introduce a new, disruptive idea, first to your own colleagues, later in the marketplace. This is an experience I went through a few times in IBM, with initiatives like parallel supercomputing, the Internet and Linux. In their early phases, the impact of such an initiative on your own company and in the marketplace is far from clear. Will it fulfill its early promise or fizzle out? If the former, how long will it likely take? And, will its impact be company-wide or confined primarily to one unit or function?
In the fall of 1995, for example, IBM made the decision to embrace the Internet across the whole company, and created the IBM Internet Division to orchestrate this company-wide effort. At the time, a lot was starting to happen around the Internet, but it was not clear where things were heading, and in particular what the implications would be to the world of business. Our job was to figure out the business value around the Internet, what we should advise our clients to do and what new products and services IBM needed to develop. Equally important, we needed to come up with an Internet business model for IBM that made sense and was financially sound.
The job was particularly difficult at first because there was no one technology or product you could develop in the labs that would make you a success in the marketplace. This time, the strategy had to come from the marketplace itself, not from the labs. This was new for us - and for me personally.
Given that disruptive innovations are based on new ideas that few appreciate initially, it’s very important to carefully explain what’s unique and different about your particular strategy to key constituencies, including your company’s own employees, clients, partners, analysts, and reporters. Thus, marketing and communications was an essential part of my job as general manager of the IBM Internet Division. Over time, our Internet strategy, - which became known as e-business, - was well received in the marketplace.
Over the years I’ve given a number of courses and seminars based on my personal experiences with such initiatives. And, I always emphasize that, when it comes to disruptive innovations, the key to success is generally not the technology itself, but the ability to overcome the cultural and marketing issues that will cause your own organization and/or the marketplace to reject the idea at first. That’s why intervention design, - the concept of applying design thinking to the very introduction and acceptance of the innovation, - so resonated with me.
What’s this concept all about? First, note Brown and Martin, introducing something new is always worrisome. It might fail in the marketplace. It might not get the necessary nurturing from upper management. It might be highly unpopular with those in the company who view the shiny new offering as a competitive threat to the existing products that their livelihood depends on. But, those involved with the new offering don’t typically pay much attention to these serious issues. They assume that it’s up to others, - perhaps in marketing, HR, or more senior positions, - to manage any such unintended consequences.
This is a particular problem when introducing a complex, company-wide initiative, - e.g., a new market strategy, business model or business ecosystem. “No wonder many genuinely innovative strategies and systems end up on a shelf somewhere - never acted on in any way,” the authors note. “However, if you approach a large-scale change as two simultaneous and parallel challenges - the design of the artifact in question and the design of the intervention that brings it to life - you can increase the chances that it will take hold.”
Traditionally, the team charged with introducing the new offering attempts to understand the target market segments through surveys, quantitative analysis and other means, perhaps including ethnographic studies to better appreciate the behavior of its intended users. But, given the unpredictable nature of people and markets, it’s not surprising that their predictions often miss the mark.
Instead, the article suggests, intervention design should be based on the same rapid prototyping principles that play such a major role in design thinking, including continuous experimentation, learning and refining. This requires introducing alpha and beta designs to get early feedback, and steadily improve the offering until the intended users are satisfied. That way, by the time the offerings is formally introduced, it has a much higher chance of success.
In addition, “Iterative rapid-cycle prototyping didn’t just improve the artifact. It turned out to be a highly effective way to obtain the funding and organizational commitment to bring the new artifact to market. A new product, especially a relatively revolutionary one, always involves a consequential bet by the management team giving it the green light. Often, fear of the unknown kills the new idea. With rapid prototyping, however, a team can be more confident of market success. This effect turns out to be even more important with complex, intangible designs.”
Gaining upper management commitment to a disruptive innovation “tends to be the exception rather than the rule, especially when the strategy represents a meaningful deviation from the status quo.” The answer is early and frequent interactions with key decision makers, both to get their valuable feedback and their commitment to the project, as they essentially become an integral part of the team. “With this approach, the final step of actually introducing a new strategy is almost a formality. The executive responsible for green-lighting it has helped define the problem, confirm the possibilities, and affirm the analyses. The proposed direction is no longer a jolt from left field. It has gradually won commitment throughout the process of its creation.”
“Intervention is a multistep process - consisting of many small steps, not a few big ones,” write Brown and Martin in conclusion. “Along the entire journey interactions with the users of a complex artifact are essential to weeding out bad designs and building confidence in the success of good ones. Design thinking began as a way to improve the process of designing tangible products. But that’s not where it will end… design thinking principles have the potential to be even more powerful when applied to managing the intangible challenges involved in getting people to engage with and adopt innovative new ideas and experiences.”