One of the books that I read over the summer break was “Are we there yet? Insights on How to Lead by Design” by Sam Bucolo.

For the first few years of Sam’s career, he worked as a design consultant. As he gained more design and problem solving experience, he came to realise that he was often getting the wrong brief from his clients.

Sam found that while companies could conceptualise new products or services, the sticking point was aligning this conceptualisation to their business models, which meant that time, and time again, projects significantly fell below expectation or failed completely.

These experiences led Sam to specialise in Design Led Innovation.

My notes:

There are three elements of Design Led Innovation:

  1. Customer value: This is the starting point, and is about being clear on who the customer is, and the problem that the business is solving for them.
  2. Management Mindset: The correct mindset to create a strategy which has been built around new insights about the customer.
  3. Strategic alignment: Ensuring that all business processes and systems are aligned with the customer’s problem.

Early in the book, Sam describes that there is no step by step guide to Design Led Innovation - each journey is unique, and the book is full of stories, and case studies as examples from his experiences with clients.

Customer Value: alignment with the customer’s needs and desires

The design mindset is about building empathy with customers, prototyping ideas, not jumping to solutions.

Designers constantly reframe problems, drawing out the contradictions and constraints. They recognise that there will be multiple answers.

Ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Who is my customer, and what problem am I solving for them?
  2. What business activities across the organisation are carried out on daily basis, which ensure we are focused on addressing our customer’s issues?
  3. What could I do less of that does not directly address my customer’s problems?

Explore multiple ideas by prototyping with customers.

Ensure that everything about the design aligns with the customer’s needs and desires.

As part of gaining new insight, look at customers from a different perspective - not by only asking what they want, but watching what they do, and why they do it. You will find inconsistencies between what they customers say they’ll do, and what they’ll actually do.

Alignment with the customer’s needs and desires requires a deep understanding of the customer’s perspective.

Management Mindset

Investing in design thinking as a management capability is a key to building a Design Led Innovation culture within firms. This will be required to tackle tomorrow’s problems without the baggage of today’s mindset.

It’s common that a firm’s culture doesn’t allow staff to explore new directions unless they have a solid business case to justify expenditure, not does it usually allow their staff to work with uncertainty and ambiguity around customer insights unless they have rigorous market data, or a potential customer ready to invest in its development.

Leaders will need to transform their mindset and thinking that there is only one right answer. This opens the business to a process of exploration and ideation through design. This is called the design mindset, and is critical to becoming design led. Without adopting a design thinking mindset, there is no point investing the time, energy, and money into applying the tools of Design Led Innovation.

Sam found that a vital first step in transforming the organisation is to get the following people in the room:

  1. The CEO or owner of the firm (who is ultimately responsible for the entire operation of the business)
  2. The head of marketing (if that role exists)
  3. The head of the design department or engineering team (again, if those roles exist)

Sam found that when he put senior leadership in one room, and asked them what the company’s strategy is, and why it was developed, that there would be as many answers as there were people in the room.

Some questions worth asking:

  • How are the innovation efforts of the business relevant to today’s economic conditions?
  • Does it feel like all staff are working towards a common company goal and purpose?
  • When was the last time something was learned from a failure, and why?
  • When was the last time you were surprised by something a customer said, and acted on it?

The process of becoming design led requires a new mindset, and is in many ways counterintuitive. The instinct will be to constantly try to jump to solutions and get quick results.

Shifting mindset cannot be learned from theory - it must be experienced first hand, and continually practiced.

Strategic Alignment

After discovering opportunities, the big challenge is to act on them.

Strategic alignment will often require significant change within the business to ensure that all business processes, systems, and products are aligned with the customer’s problem.

There needs to be:

  1. A shift from product to business model
  2. More time spent on customer centricity
  3. Alignment of your organisation’s business model to the needs of your customer.

The whole process of becoming design led can be quite disruptive. Becoming design led will often require:

  1. Stopping something that no longer adds value to a customer
  2. Slowing down the process. Sam observed that slowing down was more efficient in the long run, and yielded much better results

Three Key Takeaways

  1. In order for an organisation to be design led, there is a need to shift from product to business model, to spend more time on customer centricity, and to align your business model to the needs of your customer.
  2. The biggest challenge to an organisation being design led is shifting the mindset of the senior leadership team. The CEO needs to start the change, and take responsibility for driving change within the organisation.
  3. Design Led Innovation mirrors how a designer is taught and works. This is what distinguishes it from other standard business planning and strategy programmes.

Thanks for reading!

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