By Sharif Maghraby, Lead Innovation Coach at SAP Training & Development Institute
Yes, we do consume lots of colored post-it notes and art materials in our workshops. And yes, you can hear people laughing loudly as they tell fantastic stories about their superpowers. And yes, in a matter of a few hours, the room is transformed from a blank empty space into one that’s bursting with color, concept and possibility. It’s all part of the process that we've learned to trust - and it’s vital for innovation to thrive.
“Who we are designing for?” is a common question that I always prompt our participants to carefully consider. Identifying our users and placing them in the middle of the exploration phase is crucial to be able to create meaningful value for them. It’s a service that’s exploratory, empathic and without pre-conception. We always have to ask ourselves that fundamental question.
And the answer is not as easy as it seems. Our first reaction may be to design for our customers – which could be correct. But what if we’re trying to create value for our employees? Who would we design for then? Human-centered design can yield extremely divergent solutions based on the personas we create and the journey maps which we investigate. The manner by which we frame the initial challenge question will shape the design outcome drastically. And, not spending sufficient time in the ‘problem’ space may limit the solution scope and potential innovation opportunities that actually exist.
Let me clarify.
The reason that innovation requires us to ‘embrace ambiguity’ and demonstrate ‘creative confidence’ (IDEO) is that no-one really knows what the final outcome will be. The developers don’t know. Management doesn’t know. The coaches and trainers don’t know. And the users don’t know. But by bridging the gap between applied product/service design and insight driven innovation, we can co-create solutions that we could not have imagined on our own. In this case, the sum is definitely greater than the parts.
And in the spirit of true adventure, we must have the courage and the humility to undertake the journey of innovation and confidently say that we don’t know where we are going. We shift our focus to the real user and embark on a co-creative search - an exploration based on communication and collaboration. We must encourage them to talk about what they really want or need and make an effort to be curious about their pain-points and frustrations, in order to help contribute to solving their challenge. In the empathy phase, we find that there is certain level of vulnerability and intimacy.
After this initial basic understanding, we can begin to synthesize the key insights from our interactions with our users. And the key word here is ‘insights’ because from my experience, teams do not spend enough time in this stage. It requires the capacity to quickly converge and diverge to assimilate and re-imagine the data from the empathy phase to find non-obvious insights. It’s an integrative act of distillation and re-imagination. It requires that we summarize our key findings in short statements that are authentic, actionable and memorable. These insights are the fuel for innovation.
At this point we can confidently say that we know what the problem is.
Yes, and... we’re ready to move into solution mode.
The stage of ideation is where I see a lot of people flourish and also where a lot of people struggle. It’s not uncommon to see a flurry of countless ideas, hear the buzz of creative chatter and sense the excitement of potential and possibility. It is at this stage also where many are the most uncomfortable. Many are not used to expressing themselves freely. Many people judge themselves before they are judged. And many believe that they are ‘very uncreative.’ I totally disagree. Creativity is a natural skill that we all possess. We just have to remember how we used to unleash it.
The teams then collaborate to synthesize their ideas into one integrated solution and build a quick prototype to demonstrate the value proposition. It’s important to be able to bring our ideas to life to be able to validate our assumptions or hypotheses. These simple and seemingly unfinished prototypes are powerful tools to enable a low-risk conversation with our users. They act as channels to enable us to continue to refine and develop our solutions, without investing unnecessary time and resources. They also enable the phase of testing and iteration with our users.
Time and time again, this process that we have learned to trust reveals that people experience key moments of insight at four common points during the innovation process. The first is during the persona creation activity where we ask our participants to imagine a fictional character that represents their potential user(s). We explore the different aspects of the profile and ask them to empathize with them. Many participants recall that that experience cements the idea of user-centric design for them. It forces them to really feel what it’s like to be in the shoes of that person and to see the world through their eyes. The second moment is during the idea synthesis phase. After having gone through several rounds of ideation, we use a technique called dot-voting to force convergence. From there, we re-assimilate the chosen ideas and then ask the teams to imagine an integrated solution. Many participants find that the moment when it all comes together into one simple and well-articulated value proposition is their ‘Aha' moment. The third point is in the prototyping phase. This co-operative act of creating something tangible has a very powerful effect on the teams. Seeing the conceptual come to life and being able to interact with, touch and demonstrate the idea is a profound moment for some. And of course, the final pitches are always a bold reminder and a testament of how far a team can journey in such a short time. Their own awareness that they were able to achieve such an innovative and creative outcome surprises them, excites them and also makes them proud!
I’ve witnessed firsthand the creative energy and increased engagement of the participants. I’ve seen pop-up teams composed of total strangers quickly, efficiently and effectively work together to develop innovative products and solutions routinely and on-demand. I’ve learnt that co-creating positive experiences for people is paramount for the spirit of innovation to thrive.
And, I’ve realized that creativity is easy - and it’s the most natural of human expressions.
And with regards to the next big thing? I really don’t know. But I’m sure that by engaging with empathy, crafting powerful insights, co-creating, demonstrating our ideas, integrating user feedback, staying positive and ‘trusting the process’ – we can all find out together.