Amazon and Netflix are frequently cited as innovators, and it’s true: They are masters of looking outside their core products and core expertise to create entirely new categories.
But innovation at this level is not a random act, and it’s not a matter of pure inspiration. It takes methodology, focus, and investment; it takes calculated risk-taking and the stomach to fail.
One powerful approach to this kind of innovation is design thinking, a methodology that provides a proven framework for bringing diverse perspectives together, creatively thinking outside the box, and failing faster.
Design thinking narrows the path toward innovation, and while it’s not new, it has become incredibly relevant in the digital era. Digital technologies are the leading disruptive forces, creating seismic shocks that have unsettled so many businesses and industries. They also enable innovation at scale and at pace. The combination of digital technologies and design thinking offers a larger and deeper canvas for innovation, prototyping, and idea testing.
The basic methodologies of design thinking are well-established, but the realities and potential of the digital era demand a new foundational approach with four key components.
1. Empathy: In the pre-digital world, empathy referred to the physical hardships of product experience. If you manufactured door handles, you would strive to create the perfect door handle (and then optimize how you manufactured, marketed, and sold it). Today, you should be concerned with providing high-quality digital experiences, focusing on the speed of delivery and ecosystem integration.
The reality is that we live and work in a world where a sub-second attention span is the norm. The enterprise of today should start with that reality and empathize with the need to deliver elevated, personalized experiences in seconds. It’s not just about the product anymore but about the connected, integrated, internet-centric/digital life of the customer–the entire experience. When you leverage design thinking, you empathize differently and digitally.
2. Divergence: Traditional organizations are structured hierarchically, which tends to dictate conformity, and conformity is a detriment to innovation. Divergence, or diversity of opinion and approach, is critical to the challenge of innovation. The process of brainstorming and ideation in design thinking encourages divergent ideas at a high velocity by leveling the playing field, removing hierarchies, and challenging the status quo in the sourcing and quality of ideas.
Ideas inspire other ideas, and many good ideas are remixes and mashups of existing ones. Digital technologies also level the playing field for sourcing and remixing ideas within businesses, as well as building on top of existing ideas for incremental innovation or complete disruption.
I’ll go so far as to say the “first mover” advantage is gone. In the digital world, what differentiates is being better, not being first. Divergence in design thinking facilitates creating better products and services by supporting incremental innovation. Interestingly, getting better enables moving faster, too.
3. Convergence: Convergence without methodology is tough, requiring tact, diplomacy, and political savvy in even the least bureaucratic and most open of businesses. Design thinking provides a clear, collaborative selection for choosing and voting on key, innovative ideas to take forward. It can foster convergence through a framework for automatic consensus and elimination of bias. This is a clear win for businesses that struggle with throttled innovation efforts driven by organizational paralysis.
4. Testing: Finally, testing is where the rubber meets the road. One of the high points of contemporary design thinking is its focus and framework for testing ideas. Today’s technologies enable a vast amount of instrumentation and data collection in the testing phase to validate the product or service, increasing the accuracy of fast failure or fast success. Digital testing provides an unbiased, open, and fast method of validation, leading to greater assurance of product or service success.
The importance of innovation has never been more pronounced. The successful, relevant enterprises of today and tomorrow must figure out ways to make the process of innovation more rigorous and repeatable. Design thinking is a more mature and assured approach to innovation; it can help any business stay relevant to customers in a fast-paced, digitally connected world.