6th Business Excellence Conference on Productivity, Innovation and Growth.


Honored to have been invited as one of the keynote speakers by the Singapore Government http://www.spring.gov.sg to the 6th Business Excellence Global Conference held in Singapore 29-30 Oct. on Productivity, Innovation and Growth (a conference that brings together leaders from Business Excellence Award winners, administrators of leading national and regional business excellence frameworks, and subject experts around the globe to share their knowledge and experiences), to give the master class entitled Unleashing Creativity and Innovation in the workplace” the objective of which was to shed light on the root causes that explain why despite creativity and innovation are common traits of successful organizations, and are therefore desirable almost no one is truly satisfied with the results gotten and how to revert that so companies make of that duo a driving competence. Once innovation was defined as a self-propagating “highly contagious” meme to be promoted from the rank-and-file right to the top levels, the talk provided a bunch of helpful hints and many other practical exercises that provided attendees with key insights to make innovation flourish in their organizations and do not leave it in the laps of Gods. In this respect the user-centered innovation approach and the design thinking methodology that supports it were strongly recommended as a way to ensure measurable improvements.

More on the Design Thinking methodology, the challenges and obstacles on adopting it and how to promote a culture that foster DT adoption can be found below in the interviews given to The Business Times Newspaper and the magazine Good to Go.

1. Can you briefly describe what design thinking is?

Design Thinking is a mindset, which comes along with a method (a five-step process) to cope with challenges/problems of all types. Is the systematic process designers use (because they’ve been trained this way) to generate new options (products, services, processes and systems) that create value for the users/customers through meeting meaningfully their needs.

This requires the skill to imagine what still doesn’t exist but in our minds and in order to do so (to create the new) they use techniques and tools as: observing customers in their real context to capture insights and identify new opportunities around them, ideation to explore concepts (to address the identified needs) and fast prototyping (to give form to the most promising ideas).

2. You talk about design and designers but what does Design Thinking has to do with business and businesspeople?

Everyday, we (businesspeople) unconsciously face “design” challenges similar to those that designers have to cope with. We have to “design” new ways to organize the job to be done; we have to “design” new strategies to leave competition behind; we have to “design” new ways to make money through novel business models and/or new processes, etc. The same way that designer, businesspeople have to cope with uncertainties and consider a lot of unpredictable things like competitors’ movements, new technologies, and changes in customers’ behaviors, etc. This is exactly what design is about. Therefore designers and businesspeople in essence do the same. However businesspeople have been trained mainly in analytical skills and lack some of the tools to cope with the unknown that designers do have. DT provides businesspeople with the tools that complement their business skills, which allow them to design more innovative value propositions and more suitable/effective/profitable business models around them.

This parallelism between designers and businesspeople is fancy but what has really encouraged the emergence of DT in the business world is the fact that organizations have a need to improve quickly their creative and innovative skills to respond to the rapid change of the environment and so DT appears as an “easy”, “straightforward”, “follow-the-steps” way to innovate with successful results got there where it has been applied. In that sense some notorious and well-known wins got by global players such as P&G (which is probably the first big corporation that took a serious and bold step into Design Thinking), HP, GE or Coca-Cola just to mention a few and smaller players as OXO in the US, Lékué in Spain or players in the financial services industry like OCBC Bank in Singapore or in the health care industry like the Mayo Clinic or Kaiser Permanente both in the US and many more (not only in the B2C but in the B2B too), have made Design Thinking has gained global attention over the last years.

But you might well ask yourself what Design Thinking is really about.

On a practical level, it is a tool for what is known as user-centered innovation. A process that forces us to learn about our customers and prospects (the type of problems they have, their habits, their rarities, etc.) to gain insights that will drive the innovation process. It is a way to ensure your proposed solution will be meaningful for your customer by first gaining empathy with him/her (which starts with observation), then generating novel ideas and finally materializing and testing them out on a quick, dirty and cheap manner.

One could simplify by saying that DT is first of all about problem finding, in-depth understanding and framing (which takes diving in the real users’ environment to understand what they really need) and, secondly, problem solving though idea generation and quick prototyping, testing and making, which facilitates trying ideas and discovering new facts on an iterative way.

3. How can companies of any size benefit and make a difference to their business from introducing this methodology into the workplace?

DT is a methodology that helps companies since it provides “scaffolding” for great innovation independently of the size and resources a company has got. Is a step-by-step process that, when correctly applied may have a clear and positive (measurable) impact on the revenues and the bottom-line. Basically it forces us to think with a focus on the user; something that too often companies tend to forget especially if they have thrived (past success may have been forged on that basic practice but as the company got bigger and bigger due to the success, executives may get further and further away from the realities of the markets and then product solutions may respond more to their own projections and instructed guessing and intuition than to the true users’ needs). We shouldn’t ever forget that businesses happen in the real world (and not within our office facilities) and so we should spend more time out there touching the reality. Therefore the maxim is “get out a go native” immersing yourself to identify problems that potentially may unlock business opportunities.

4. If DT is so straightforward, why is it still not widely used? What are the challenges and obstacles of adopting design thinking?

One reason perhaps is that not everyone (in particular small companies) knows about it yet. Unawareness of its existence or a biased knowledge, which may preempt its use, can be the reason for that. Above and beyond this first explanation, others that certainly know about it may be reluctant to apply it because of more subtle reasons. Let’s analyze them.

First, it forces you to go out to observe, listen and ask a lot in the hope of gaining insights that may address opportunities and this requires humbleness (to accept after some discoveries that you could be wrong with your previous hypothesis), is time consuming (and therefore costly) and sometimes quite disappointing (because you don’t always get the insights that are the drivers for developing truly valuable solutions within the blink of an eye).

Second, DT demands collaboration, which means forming groups of people with different ways to look at the reality that makes progress painful, difficult and exasperatingly slow particularly at the beginning of the process. Generally speaking we have been trained to compete and not to collaborate therefore what DT demands is something not natural.

Third, the company must get into a culture of confidence with the employees to unleash all their inner potential and sometimes (more often than not) managers may feel insecure about that as they might infer this may go against achieving the day-to-day operational results. In reality the problem is that creativity and innovation have never been straightforward processes because they follow a “logic” that gets away from the prevailing of productivity and efficiency, which clashes with the common way-of-doing.

Fourth, it requires creating a culture with a bias for experimentation (action) and that demands a change in the rewarding system; a change that rewards attempts and not only successful outcomes.

A fifth reason for not using it is perhaps that the company’s first attempt with DT failed. Although DT is very powerful and appealing and somehow “easy” to implement, the risk is not using it properly and so making of it a hype that may end up disappointing business. Assuming DT is going to be the solution of all our shortcomings is a fallacy. Innovation remains messy. DT may increase the odds of having better results with regard to innovation but it shouldn’t be seen as the panacea otherwise frustration is guaranteed.

5. You have just mentioned that a proper adoption of DT to innovate requires creating a culture that encourages experimentation. What are the key ingredients to develop that? Or said in different words, how can we encourage people’s out-of-the-box thinking?

Although it is not easy to answer this question because every company has its very particular character, I would think of six points that must be met:

  1. Encourage a safe environment where curiosity is stimulated and abductive thinking (the what-can-be type of thinking) to ”design” the future is recognized.Employees must feel safe enough to say what they think and try new things by removing the threat of a dismissal if things go wrong.
  2. Balance order & routine with a certain degree of permissiveness. Strive for ambidexterity to cope with the different capabilities of doers, organizational insiders (those who have the practical intelligence to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and bring ideas into a fruitful end), creative people (what I define as green sheep; those who see things and approach problems and solutions differently) and storytellers within the company.
  3. Instill a sense of urgency and set a purpose (share information to forge a collective vision), create space for autonomy, give room for mastery and self-deployment to the employees.
  4. Stimulate intrapreneurship. Ideas are useless unless executed!
  5. Align the incentive system to achieve the innovation you want to get! If your incentive system does not reward taking risks, revolutionary innovation that may make way to potential disruptions will never occur and
  6. Be patient because success is the exception and failure the norm.

6. What are the risks to companies if they fail to foster more creativity and transform this powerhouse into innovations?

The main risk in a time of cautious consumer spending and at the same time oversupply is that (1) if you don’t identify growth opportunities and (2) you don’t fill them with novel and meaningful solutions you may disappear. The practice of gaining customer insight to generate new concepts it is nowadays a must. Those that don’t innovate (or fail in the process) will become irrelevant at the customers’ eyes and will go extinct very quickly.