Declutter yourself to innovation: Making Small the Next Big Thing

Some interesting conversations happened over the last few weeks that resonated with some of the main insights we have had into how innovation may happen in large organisation - and maybe also why not. An often overlooked elephant in the room is that he way large organisations are structured creates big barriers for innovation. Already in 2002 Theodore Levitt said in a HBR article: "Organizations, by their very nature, are designed to promote order and routine; they are inhospitable environments for innovation." This is also something that Shoshana Zuboff has dedicated much of her research to, essentially stating that the voice of both consumers and staff never really get onto the leadership radar as there are too many filtering layers - and no one is encouraged to pass along "bad news". As a consequence, senior executives are often blissfully  unaware that they might have some rather burning platforms in their company - and that is why many a corporate innovation effort addresses the wrong questions.

The cost of complexity is astounding as a recent HBR article by venerable management scholar Gary Hamel states: "More people are working in big, bureaucratic organizations than ever before. Yet there’s compelling evidence that bureaucracy creates a significant drag on productivity and organizational resilience and innovation. By our reckoning, the cost of excess bureaucracy in the U.S. economy amounts to more than $3 trillion in lost economic output, or about 17% of GDP."

This might explain the recent popularity of the lean start-up movement with large corporates - because as Seth Godin said: "Small is the new Big." What makes things difficult for start-ups that are funded by old school venture capitalists is the obsession with "scale". But luckily there is a changing mindset emerging which we really like. This is driven by likes of Paul Jarvis in his approach called the Company of One: "What if the real key to a richer and more fulfilling career was not to create and scale a new start-up, but rather, to be able to work for yourself, determine your own hours, and become a (highly profitable) and sustainable company of one? Company of One is a refreshingly new approach centered on staying small and avoiding growth."

This refreshing take on the Gig-Economy and Future of Work will be a theme that we will discuss in posts to come. 

On a Personal Note: The Art of Innovation Leadership

It's been a while since we last posted on how leaders can create "safe spaces" for creative thinking and innovation experiments. Over the last few weeks we have been running various innovation and design sprints in order to observe some of theses practices in action. Besides being able to tweak our workshop toolbox here and there, we were again struck by the importance of the human dimension in driving innovation leadership. This plays out on various levels that we want to reflect on here.

The first dimension is the complex skills set required by innovation leaders as see; see here for a more detailed overview.


And of course the leader is not alone in this quest - needing to draw on the collective intelligence of his leadership team and also build an innovation support team with the right skills set. We like the IDEO Ten Faces of Innovation approach to team formation; also see link for more detail:
The Anthropologist
The Experimenter
The Cross-Pollinator
 The Hurdler
The Collaborator
The Director
The Experience Architect
The Set Designer
The Storyteller
The Caregiver

One of the other key learnings is that any innovation journey has a substantial cultural change dimension and this needs to be narrated well in order to get people on board. One of our favourite models is the SY Partners approach to what they call seismic change and these are some of the suggestions they have for transformational leaders:
1. Craft your story—and tell it.
Your new colleagues want to understand you as a leader. Find an opportunity to share your story and explain how your personal values and aspirations align with those of the company. When you’re confident enough to be a little bit vulnerable, it builds everyone else’s confidence that you’re a leader worth trusting and following.
2. Build your duos.
A duo is you + someone else. In times of uncertainty, you can lean on and trust in your duos—which is why it’s so important to build these relationships early on. So, identify the key duos that are going to be important for your work. Reach out. Extend trust before it’s extended to you, and build the relationship from there.
3. Know thy team.
It’s likely that you’ve inherited a team, and that they’re both excited and terrified by your arrival. Start by assuming the team has tremendous value it can contribute to the company’s future. Invest in understanding the team’s capabilities. Get curious about people’s working styles. Most importantly, realize that every single team member has a particular superpower—and it’s your job to make sure they get to use it.
4. Help your team find its purpose.
Every team tells itself a story about the job it’s there to do. But sometimes that story is out of date, or holds them back from work that’s truly worthy. So, gather the team. Dig in to people’s beliefs about the team and its value. Talk about the purpose of the organization, and ask team members to describe how the team has helped advance that purpose. Then refine or redefine your team’s reason for being—and brainstorm opportunities to contribute even more powerfully.
5. Listen, listen, listen. But don’t forget to act.
Leaders who challenge their own assumptions become far wiser and gain much more respect than those who try to establish authority too quickly. But that doesn’t mean you have to be passive. Make a couple of small key moves that demonstrate your intention to change things for the better.
6. Fall in love with your customer.
This is a good moment to remember that customers are a privilege. Get to know them genuinely, especially if they’re very different from you personally. Your connection to customers will help bring colleagues and team members along as they experience your authentic commitment.
7. Remember: Love, not fear.
It’s true that as a leader, you’ll do things that some people won’t like. Many might even decide they don’t like YOU as a result. You can’t worry about that. If you let your fear of being unpopular or of making the wrong move affect your decisions, the authenticity of your leadership will suffer. Instead, forge ahead and lead from a place of love. Let people see your humanity. Communicate authentically. Share the Why behind your decisions. Bring your full self to every challenge, and take 100% accountability for the outcome. Not only will you gain people’s trust, you’re likely to earn their enduring respect.

The final piece of advice brings us back to the "spaces for innovation" concept - both in the physical and more importantly in the mental mindset dimension. There has been some great recent work by both IDEO and Google on this.

The Art of Creating Safe Spaces for Creative Leadership

This post is dedicated to one of our "obsessions" at LeftFieldLab: Creative Leadership. It's an emerging discipline that augments the traditional leadership toolbox to foster a new mindset that seeks to enhance an organisations creative problem solving capabilities. As discussed before both our school and university systems don't encourage creative thinking at all - the opposite seems to be the current paradigm with the STEM ideology (e.g. engineering, maths, science) driving the knowledge agenda in most countries. But luckily there are some great experiments happening at the fringes, so a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit a Creative Leadership course at the Kaospilot School in Denmark. Allow me to reflect on a few things that I took home with me from this quite transformative learning  experience:    

To create a "safe space" for deep creative thinking one must step out of the "facilitator" role. Many of us that have to host workshops or ideation sessions fall into the trap of just facilitating - which might entail running through a list of exercises, filling out templates and some more playful stuff that might involve LEGO. At Kaospilot we where encouraged - stretched is probably the better word - to forget the template / structure / crutch and start with a good dose of humility, vulnerability as well as listening skills. The latter works on three levels that are best described by way of metaphors: the mirror, the tunnel as well as the antenna. The "antenna" mode of listening is key when working with large groups in order to "read" the room and manage the energy flows of the session.

Another great technique involves the power of pause, hesitation as well as silence and is called "smell the fart". This is used by conductors of large orchestras and it's that moment of expectant tension before everyone starts playing and the conductors gaze pans across his orchestra to focus everyones attention on the task at hand. In staying with this metaphor from the performing arts, we also looked at creating "arches" which are little movements that help us manage creative tensions and idea flows in groups.

The final thing I want to share today is the value of deeper personal connections that are formed through meaningful conversations, asking the right questions and giving good feedback. It started out with none of us having to share our jobs, titles etc. but rather listening to each others stories in a one-on-one session under the title "In my life I want to stand for..." which opened up a much deeper space to connect as a group. Then we were also encouraged to ask open questions that seek to proben deeper into the choices we have made in the past and how that might influence our future journey. And finally we used appreciated feedback techniques at the end of each day that center around two dimensions: "You really served the group well by..." and "I want to see more of..." this aspect of your personality.

These are just some of the ideas that I took home with me to Cape Town after 3 intense days of introspection and interaction, so I am happy to report that we are going to host the Kaospilot Creative Leadership session in the Mother City in October 2018. Please get in touch if you need more information.







Beyond the Hype: Evaluating the Impact of Design Thinking

It's been a while since we last posted - seems the Easter Break as just too tempting for slowing down - but todays post has been on my mind for a while. As could be expected with any new methodology, there have been more and more vocal critics of Design Thinking over the last few months. So it seems useful to share a recent study delivered by Jeanne Liedtka (University of Virginia Darden School of Business) that outlines the various benefits of this mindset in addressing some of the most pressing organisational innovation challenges of our time.

The paper has a fitting title in that it explores Design Thinking "in action" and not on a theoretical level where there is no "real-world" impact beyond academic discourse. Jeanne mentions a few key practices that underpin design thinking in action:

1. Development of a deep empathic understanding of peoples needs and context. This mindset drives other practices e.g. by providing user-driven criteria for ideation, encouraging a reframing of the problem, aligning team members’ perspectives, enhancing the ability to alter course and “pivot” as well as building emotional engagement and buy-in at a deeper level. 

2. The formation of heterogeneous teams. This second critical innovation practice supports conducive behaviour e.g. by building alignment across differences, expanding the repertoire of teams, building local capabilities to solve new problems, broadening access to networks and resources as well as enhancing willingness to co-create.

3. Dialogue-based conversations that focused on problem definition first and allowed for the emergence of new solutions. This third practice encourages fostering alignment, allows for emergent solutions, creating a “social technology” as well as building engagement and trust.

4. Creation of multiple solutions made tangible through prototyping that were then winnowed through real world interaction and experimentation. Here it gets interesting as she points to issues like: reduced visibility of failures, mitigation of decision biases, attracting solution champions as well as encouraging a learning mindset and action orientation.

5. The use of a structured and facilitated process. This practice seeks to support: increased psychological safety, managing cognitive complexity, involving key stakeholders as well as improving confidence and quality through coaching.

In strategic projects these practices flow into one another and teams will move iteratively between different stages, but ultimately they contribute to favourable outcomes as Liedkta points out: 
1. Design Thinking improves organizational innovation outcomes by producing higher quality solutions.
2. Design Thinking improves innovation outcomes by reducing the risk/visibility of failure.
3. Design Thinking improves outcomes by improving the likelihood of implementation.
4. Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by improving adaptability.
5. Design Thinking impacts innovation outcomes by the creation of local capability sets.

Even though it takes time to master some of these skills and achieve a higher level of Design Thinking maturity, we can already see some of the benefits in smaller test projects - which then help to "sell" the approach to other stakeholders that might still be sceptical.

The Sweet Seduction of "Solution Mode"

This weeks post goes to the heart of any design thinking process - but maybe also more broadly touches on a key aspect of contemporary leadership: not having all the answers and turning this vulnerability or humility into a powerful tool for innovation. In Design Thinking we call this mindset "falling in love with problems" or "staying out of solution mode" as long as possible and it can be a quite powerful way to unlock collaboration and co-creation in large organisations. This is how Intuit's Suzanne Pellican puts it: "And if I can get them (my staff)  to be more in love with the problem than the solution, we all win. When you come up with an idea, and go “aha!” and you fall in love with it. You assume it’s the right answer and keep moving forward. The cost of being wrong at a big company is higher. We need to realize “Oh ok, my solution isn’t the best. Maybe my coworkers have a better solution.” Which starts with getting everyone intensely focused on the problem that we’re trying to solve. It’s game changing."

To me this approach has become a key measure of practicing design thinking in the right way. Many times - let's say during a typical design sprint process - we see clients getting very nervous during this problem definition phase, because when are we going to start making a funky gadget / app to impress our boss that this was time well spent. The likes of Google address this very well in their Google Ventures Design Sprint model and most UX Design Management Consultants are offering this service as well - were someone sits in the corner as people discuss the problems and starts doing wireframes and clickdummys with his Invision App. This has become a new type of visual harvesting in workshops and seems to impress suitably.

What this "feel-good" approach to Design Thinking lacks is the rigour and empathy of creative problem solving that starts with understanding humans and their contexts at a much deeper level - and not just during user acceptance testing on the final day of the sprint. A good friend and fellow practitioner shared this overview by Mule Design that really captures the most suitable approach to this challenge:

1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable
“All I know is that I know nothing.” — Socrates

2. Ask first, prototype later
“If we only test bottle openers, we may never realize customers prefer screw-top bottles.”—Victor Lombardi, Why We Fail
3. Know your goal
4. Agree on the big questions
“At its core, all business is about making bets on human behavior.”
The Power of ‘Thick’ Data, WSJ
5. There is always enough time and money - Just avoid doing surveys.
6. Don’t expect data to change minds
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”—Upton Sinclair
7. Embrace messy imperfection
“We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self destruction.” ― Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
8. Commit to collaboration
9. Find your bias buddies
“We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

Let's see if we can start practicing the art of deep listening and learning before we launch into our next venture.


Beneath the Noise: The Power of Meaningful Conversations and Deep Reflection

It might seem like us taking the last posts message about "switching off" to heart given our virtual absence, but there was a rather good reason for this. We were able to spend some time with the participants in an executive development programme called "The Next MBA" - see here for details. This 18 month global learning journey takes senior leaders to 6 different places in order to better understand contextual challenges and emerging solutions - but also to form learning partnerships and networks among themselves. This concept - started and operated by management consulting firm Mazars - has once again been a response to the lack of innovation in offerings by major business schools.

One of the "African inspirations" we were keen to unpack with the team was the art of meaningful conversations - a "slow" way of creating and sharing knowledge that seems to be under threat in our always-on society with back-to-back meetings creating an illusion of progress. What emerged was that this type of deep listening and learning experience might well be what most leaders are yearning for in their current situation. In a great article called the "The Rewards of CEO Reflection" the authors point out the value of deep thinking to executives and how to overcome the barriers to this practice in everyday life. Three things are helpful in this regard:

A Structure and a Schedule. Unstructured and unguided thought tends to dwell on immediate worries and familiar conundrums rather than fundamental and foundational issues. Thought focused on solving immediate problems is critical — not reflective — thought. Reflective thought sets the stage for long-term success.
A Trusted Dialogue Partner. A CEO has to maintain a persona. In front of their people, CEOs need to project confidence, optimism, and command. In public — and even with their most senior executives — they rarely exhibit signs of self-doubt, admit uncertainty, or question core beliefs. Scrutiny in social media amplifies this tendency toward heroic stoicism. Reflection, on the other hand, requires introspection and honesty that are difficult for CEOs to convey in their day-to-day activities.
A Catalytic Conversation. Many executives and other stakeholders who meet with the CEO want to focus on their own agenda or are simply executing the CEO’s agenda. Their conversations are a critical part of corporate life, but they are unlikely to lead to reflective thought. Dialogue partners bring an entirely different mindset and set of materials to their discussions with CEOs. CEOs benefit from new and unbiased information in order to stimulate and catalyze their thinking. By having an independent eye-level relationship with a CEO, a dialogue partner can provide perspectives that otherwise are unlikely to be aired.

As Tim Leberecht points out in his article "Think More, Collaborate Less", there is value in deep  and guided introspection in order to come up for air above the management consulting inspired buzzword noise and group-think so prevalent in most large organisations - which also leads the authors of this MIT Sloan Reaview article to postulate "The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organisations".
One could also go one step further with William Deresiewicz to see solitude as the hallmark of a great leader: "If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts." In this view being alone allows a leader to form his or her vision, the ability to think differently instead of just following the established consensus.

Which brings us to one of the exciting projects we are busy with at the moment - the journey of an established business school outside Cape Town to start an Executive Monastery: a building complex with stylish accommodation, seminar rooms and a natural environment for physical regeneration which they hope to become one of the key sites for reflection, negotiation and retreat in the world.

Switching Off - is humanity possibly making a comeback?

For those of us in the human-centered design community there has been some rather encouraging news from an unlikely space deep in the Silicon Valley "unicorn bubble". After seeing massive drops in customer engagement and also ad revenues as a result of that, Facebook has come out with some strategies to counter this trend - with some rather strong "nudges" to please come back.

A recent WIRED article provides fascinating insights into the cultural changes inside this orgsanisation as some of the most senior leadership turns it's back on this once so happy family. It's a complex problem: on the one hand it seems that FB is finding it difficult to deal with the ethical responsibilities of being a media company that can sway public sentiments with massive consequences for democracy e.g. see role in recent US elections. But on the other hand there is an even more disruptive (excuse the pun) shift underway which will impact not only Facebook but the entire tech industry. One of the key advocates of this movement is Tristan Harris - an Google Design Ethicist and someone that Mark Zuckerberg would love to get closer to.

After seeing the potentially negative consequences of an "always on" life dominated by invasive screens, continuous surveillance and predictive analytics, Tim has started the Centre for Humane Technology -  with a rather strong vision statement: "Our society is being hijacked by technology. What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental healthdemocracysocial relationships, and our children." There is even a field of study called "Technostress" that looks at the destructive effects of smartphones on (mental) health.

Being an insider to this world, Tim provides some very convincing evidence about what the likes of Google and Facebook are up to. But he also leaves us with some very easily implementable ways to start regaining control of our lives:
1. Turn off all notifications except from people.
2. Go Grayscale.
3. Try keeping your home screen to tools-only.
4. Launch other apps by typing.
5. Charge your device outside the bedroom.
6. Go cold turkey: Remove social media from your phone.
7. Send audio notes or call instead of texting.
8. Texting shortcut:  Use quick reactions.
9. Download apps and extensions that help you live without distraction.

There is a great list of latter on his site and as we know people long for more meaningful interactions, so why don't we give it a try and: switch off.

Exploring the Links: Design and Venture Capital

A while back we discussed the impact of Design as a Value Driver in large corporations by looking at the DMI (Design Management Institute) Design Value Index that correlates investments into design with share price performance. Today I want to look at another key trend from the US that has yet to play out in South Africa - the relationship between Design and Venture Capital. Invision recently released a great movie called Design Disruptors that showcases a few well-know "unicorns" from Silicon Valley that were started by designers e.g. AirBNB being a famous one. The magic here again is not in the technology - see Brian Chesky Keynote here (go to 10:50) - but in the deeper insights into human needs fueled by empathy. Design Thinking models talk about the intersection between Desirability, Feasibility and Viability - many companies are strong on technology and the business case part, but they lack the deeper understanding of desirability; which is what design brings to the table.

This sensitivity is starting into inform major investment decisions e.g. with many large Silicon Valley VC and Private Equity firms now having Design Partners to augment their skills sets. An early mover was KPCB - very much into the Digital Economy - that hired John Maeda then the Dean of a Design School as Partner and he has now started documenting this trend very well through the Design in Tech report. Irene Au - Design Partner at Khosla Ventures - has also released a very good study about the relationship between Design and Venture Capital.

The other interesting development to note here is that designers are also starting their own venture funding platforms like the in an attempt to specifically support businesses that are started by designers in their early stages. Locally in South Africa we have not seen that much activity on this front yet, although some of the successful KnifeCapital exists can be attributed to good industrial and UX design. At some point Hasso Plattner Ventures - him also being a major funder of design thinking globally - was looking into it and we have also seen corporates like Standard Bank tap into Design Thinking for inform some of their recent innovation ventures - see here.

But we are keen to drive this conversation so if you are in the VC or Private Equity space feel free to reach out.




Making Space for Innovation

In a very interesting TED talk entitled "Where good ideas come from" Steven Johnson explores the impact that coffee shops - and also coffee as a stimulant - have had on human progress. This  triggers some important insights into the value of spaces in the context of fostering a culture of innovation in large, complex organisations. One of the kneejerk reactions many executives have after their obligatory "Silicon Valley Safaris" is to create innovation spaces within their companies - mostly with some expensive, cool designer furniture as well as inspiring books, toys, gadgets. Sadly this is not enough as many companies have found out over the years as these spaces often become nicer meeting rooms with better coffee and snacks - but not automatic disruptive idea generators. In order to stay away from this kind of expensive "innovation circus" that might impress some executives at first glance, innovation leaders need to carefully examine the role of physical environments in the context of their strategic innovation mandate.

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution examines the role of spaces in driving innovation. Three main trends contribute to the impact of physical environments on driving new ways of working: the open and more collaborative nature of innovation (e.g. with outsider and across silos), the value of face-to-face idea generation (e.g. Co Creation with users) and the need to experiment e.g. by prototyping new solutions in a protected "sandbox" test environment. But as this post mentions, prototyping alone is not enough. In order to work effectively with them we also need boundary agents – someone to bring relevant people together and enable them to have useful conversations. This role is best given to someone that can tap into multiple, divers knowledge ecosystems - many of which depend on having trusted relationships with creative thinkers outside of their organsiation. These innovation space curators are able to get the right people into the room and they have the right methods to ensure impactful outcomes. What this view also highlights is the value of creating the right "mindspace" for innovation - which will then enrich the physical space. We should remember that some of the coolest innovation spaces are in not very sexy garages - see here for a useful discussion of the Corporate Garage concept.

This brings me to our own and special innovation space at the Montebello Design Centre in Newlands, Cape Town. We really enjoy being part this carefully curated innovation community and would like to invite you for some coffee if you are in the area.

Deep Transformations - From Style to Substance

We have spoken about the value of creative leadership in enabling a design-centric approach to innovation and new business development, so it's also useful to look at how to embed this people-centric perspective in the organisation to really transform the everyday reality. We have all been there: coming home to our desk from an inspiring workshop and learning experience - only to realise that we have been to a foreign planet that our co-workers will quickly help us forget ever existed. There are ways to keep this new mindset alive e.g. as described in this article, but many organisations are making bolder steps to embed a design thinking culture in their organisations.

There are different models that will depend on a level of cultural and strategic maturity that is able to absorb new management paradigms, see here for an interesting report from Roland Berger called "Design Thinking on every level" that shows how to support a new way of strategic decision making. Along these lines - and also something that is happening at Discovery Health locally - I also came across an approach by Deutsche Telekom that seeks to expose every staff member to the principles of Design Thinking to create a shared language and ways of working when practicing people-centric innovation.

And then again - possibly because being faced by extinction helps - we are seeing the most interesting experiments in the financial services space that have led the experts at IESE Business School and Oliver Wyman to release a report about "Design Thinking - The new DNA of the Financial Sector". Already in 2014 things started getting more design-centric in financial services when Capital One bank acquired a famous design firm called Adaptive Path to import this mindset into their business - apparently with some success. Recently we have seen Commerzbank in Germany set up an internal design agency - in Berlin with a smaller business interface team in Frankfurt - called Neugelb that drives most of the strategic design & innovation projects.

A great way to start your journey is outlined in this report by Fjord - but please also get in touch should you also want to start getting serious about Design Thinking in your organisation.