This diagram is from Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods. It is the basis for his structured approach for innovation planning, and the essence of what is taught at the methods driven human centered design program at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago. Today I want to question some of the fundamental assumptions that underlie it – and from the very beginning of the process, not simply at Phase 5 (Explore Concepts) as given in the book. Some notes on this phase are shared below:
Explore Concepts: In this mode, we do structured brainstorming to explore new concepts. The insights and principles framed earlier provide the starting points for ideation, as well as guides to ensure we’re on track with matching concepts to needs. This helps make our concepts defensible and grounded in reality. In addition to the product and service, ideas for branding, communication, and even business models, are explored. This is the first stage we begin to construct rough (low-fidelity) prototypes – they help focus the team discussions, and provide probes for early user feedback or help the client clarify and refine their product development strategy whilst giving us feedback on the technical aspects.
And the mindsets recommended for this mode include:
- Challenging assumptions
- Standing in the future
- Exploring concepts at the fringes
- Seeking clearly added value
- Narrating stories about the future
Yet, what I question today is whether these mindsets that encourage experimentation and exploration should come up so late in the process, at the concept development stage, long after research and analysis have been completed? It is true that Vijay says the process is non linear and that a conceptual brainstorm (mode 5) may lead the way into research designed to validate its viability, feasibility and desirability, but this is at the tactical level of business innovation rather than at the strategic level. I question whether its possible to use this powerful and methodical approach to begin with a structured and rigorous questioning of our initial assumptions at the very inception itself in order to over turn the often implicit and tacit drivers of consumption driven growth seeking only to maximize profitability.
Let me share an earlier variation of this diagram first, where the real and the abstract are also mapped on to the process.
It is here, at the real stage, where we seek to understand what is what – through research, before we can analyse it and synthesize our narratives and concepts, where we have the opportunity to question our assumptions regarding the ‘system’. The lower left quadrant where we seek to “understand the real” is where we have the power to make the change that can genuinely disrupt business as usual. Not in the sense of a business model that disrupts but still holds the premise that all profits should flow to the shareholders, or a shift in the corporate’s focus to services from manufacturing but without the explicit articulation of environmental impact or resource conservation. To disrupt business as usual in today’s world would mean starting to question Whom are we serving? Why? For whose benefit? from scratch rather than leaving them unasked, resulting in default assumptions that a business only seeks to innovate to increase its own profits rather than seeking to serve a greater good such as the planet and the wildlife.
The triple bottomline approach captures the end results for those corporations who are already oriented in this way but is there a structured and rigorous planning approach to ensure their near future innovation and strategies align with these corporate goals and visions? And, is there such a flexible tool that the smallest startup can use it to think of how they will choose to do business – after all, it is a choice, and framing it up front in the product and service development process means that it now becomes an explicit choice, a considered decision to be taken, rather than one after the fact or halfway down the process when some inadvertent outcome leads to challenges that were not foreseen.
Sustainable product development already has numerous robust and validated systems and processes, from green buildings to recyclable packaging, what is missing however is the holistic integration of design and manufacturing (which hold the maximum power for good for the planet and the people) with the business thinking and the sustainable revenue generation strategies that can ensure that probability of the innovation’s success is maximized.
And, if we can design the fuzzy front end to be customized to the priority needs of any particular operating environment then following through with this adapted approach to innovation planning for the informal economy or for sub Saharan Africa’s consumer markets will be a cakewalk. Half the current challenge of business planning and corporate strategy in disparate operating environments with very distinctly different conditions is that the methods, tools, and frameworks available to us are all the same, and primarily developed in the context of highly industrialized and information rich consumer markets. They leave assumptions on the conditions and constraints of the operating environment untouched and implicit*.
Thus, going back to the first diagram, where the first mode is Sense Intent:
Sense Intent: Before jumping straight into a project, we pause to consider the world in which our intended users reside. We scan the horizon, looking at technological & socio-economic trends, precursors, competing products, and a variety of other factors that can affect our topic area. All of these offer us a way to reframe our initial problem and help us think of our initial intent and the direction in which we should be moving. This is where our research questions are mapped out, and the problem space described.
This is where the power resides to remake our world. What if we began with the mindset that:
- Challenged assumptions
- Stood in the future
- Explored the fringes
- Sought added value and began with articulating for whom (all stakeholders)
And began with the story (5. Narrating stories about the future) about the changes we wished to see, and the impact we wished to have, on our own future, thus inspiring and informing the scope and shape of the research we conducted in order to know people (mode 2) and know context (mode 3) so as to gather the type of forward looking insights we would need in order shape and craft something wholly different from the ground up.
What if we thought about innovation very differently from the current context of a new product or a new service, of looking to disrupt the existing even while seeking to exist within the conventional frameworks of success – profits, scale, reach, impact, fundraising et al
We need new narratives and new goals but ad hoc design fictions and scenarios aren’t going achieve the kind of new we need for the way our planet has changed. Along with the limits of what can be, we have also reached the limits of where our existing methods and tools can take us. And without changing those, at the systemic level, we’ll still be trying to come up with changes within the constraints of what has already been established. We don’t need the existing tools that help us to think outside the box, what we now need are the tools to build new boxes.
*This is the tyranny of dominant logic CK Prahalad spoke about.