Innovation by Design…for Everyone

  • Business Model Innovation

How to help move your (entire) organization toward a design-led approach to everything

Every day, I come across organizations of all sizes – mostly giant ones – that want desperately to move beyond the bureaucratic, multi-year product/service cycles, where “innovations” are mostly incremental and inside-out in nature, to more customer-first, design-led disruptive innovation. The challenge in most cases is that these same companies have been built from the ground up to support the “old way” of doing things, like big design upfront (BDUF) and waterfall development methods. Moreover, the very notion of going to customers with early (or scrappy, prototype) versions of an idea in order to collect feedback is terrifying at every level – which of course is ironic, given that these same organizations know they need to do something different in order to survive.

The question I am most often asked is, “how might we get the entire organization thinking, doing, and making decisions in a new, more innovative way?”

As you already likely know, this is not an easy question to answer. Nor is it an easy problem to solve. Built into every company, especially larger, older ones, is a culture that has been fostered for years (and perhaps decades). Hence, there is a 0.00% chance that any company can change overnight…at least for the better. However, there are certainly ways to help transform any company, at all levels, to start thinking, speaking, and perhaps doing things differently, with a design-led approach. In the following post, I’ll outline how we, at BMI, have done this for very large companies and how you might do the same for yours.

Top-down or Bottom-up Innovation

Though there are many ways to scale innovation – as a set of tools, skills, and an innovator’s mindset – first it’s important to understand that in order for any new initiative to take root and grow into a movement, it must be supported from the top and scaled from the bottom. Sure, you can prototype various ways of working as well as new tools and methods at a group level. However, if leaders in your organization don’t understand the new language you’re speaking or how you’re going about prototyping and validating (and failing/learning) your way to better solutions, they most certainly won’t know how to make decisions that take this new way of working into account. Likewise, perhaps the leadership team starts with a retreat that dives into new ways of innovating a la “Lean Startup” and “Design a Better Business” methods. However, if the rest of the company hasn’t been indoctrinated into this new language etc., the subsequent discussions and decision-making points will quickly become frustrating for all.

Of course, supporting an innovation initiative from both the top and bottom of any organization can feel daunting. That said in my experience, the easiest and best way to start something like this is to first develop some design criteria (and a mid-level) and set up some small tests in order to figure out what tools, methods, and language will work well at both the top and the bottom. For instance, if at an executive level “Lean Startup” and “Design a Better Business” language and methods, like those employed by Google/Alphabet, Amazon, and other titans of their respective industries, seem to resonate, work with someone to setup short 1-1.5 hour talks or mini-workshops with some senior leadership teams followed by individual validation discussions. This will provide you with some understanding of what might make the most sense from a leader’s perspective.

Similarly, and perhaps in parallel, you can set up short training workshops – sometimes even lunch-and-learns work – to test the tools, skills, and language of innovation with a broader audience of managers and non-managers alike. When you do this, what you’ll likely find is that while some people find the training interesting-ish, others will stand up and exclaim, “Count me in! When can I start using that innovation stuff in my day-to-day?” It’s the latter group that is really important in the context of validation and spreading the word.

Develop a small team of nuts (and metrics to boot)

Read any article or book about how movements are created, and what you’ll inevitably learn is that movements start and first spread by only a few people who totally believe in the purpose of said movement and are ready to live it – which often means they need other people to buy in as well. The diagram below, authored by XPlane, does a good job showing the stages by which movements are created in big organizations. The gist here is that no movement is created by just reading out/presenting how things should change. Movements start when people hear something they relate to begin to believe in what they heard and eventually spread the word such that others believe the same…and eventually, start living what they believe.

Therefore, in your quest to create and scale a new innovation approach, it’s important that you find the few that stand out and want to help spread the word. It’s important that this small group of early adopters (or nuts) must self-select for the job of ambassadors of the new approach. Once they do, it is my experience that they’ll require more training, possibly even advanced courses, to help A) further cement the innovation approach; and B) provide a broader innovation vocabulary, toolset, and examples to pull from. With these in hand, these people will become your ambassadors, helping to spread the word (organically) to other parts of the organization.

Additionally, ambassadors will likely also need semi-frequent check-ins to ensure that they have what they need to continue the work of spreading the word. And…it’s during these check-ins that ambassadors will learn from each other and find new ways to overcome objections that they’re likely hearing from others. For large, siloed organizations, you might even consider using social networking tools, like LEO, to get a handle on how ambassadors are connecting/connected and who else might be an interesting ambassador candidate. 

Train the Trainers

As the new tools, skills, and language make their way through the organization via the network of ambassadors, you’ll want to consider how to continue to build more capability within the organizations while also growing the ambassador network. Though certainly some of this can be done through online learning and partners, like BMI, if your goal is to internalize and scale innovation, it’s best to train others internally to help with this.

sDesign a better business

This is where training trainers come in. Similar to how ambassadors self-select to carry the innovation language further, you will likely find (again, probably organically) that some subset of ambassadors is also wanting and capable of training others. In fact, some may already have skills training others in their current roles. As with the advanced training taught to ambassadors, this smaller group of future trainers will require more advanced training on the tools, skills, mindset, and innovation language in order to enable them to train others in the organization. And, like ambassadors, it will be important that the network of trainers is fostered via frequent check-ins. 

Empower (internal) Facilitators

The goal of any organization is not just to have people versed in innovation tools, skills, mindset and the language therein. It’s to employ these in order to actually BE more innovative. To do this well, eventually, any organization will need people who can act as internal facilitators, guiding teams through design-led processes that deliver results. And…just as ambassadors and trainers were “found” and trained, internal programs should exist that are developed to help empower people to become facilitators.

It’s important to distinguish in this case, just because someone has been trained to use new tools and methods and employ new skills, it does not mean they’re ready to facilitate other groups to co-create real results. This takes time and experience. One of the best ways to gain experience, in this case, is to co-facilitate with other, more experienced facilitators (or strategy designers in the case of BMI). It is via the stories that come from co-facilitation that experience will be built.

Continue to Scale

From the initial lunch-and-learns and short keynotes, it’s absolutely possible to update any company’s culture to be more innovative through the use of tools, skills, and an innovator’s mindset. Now, to “design the future of your organization” in order to do something with its innovation culture is another piece to this puzzle. For that, have a look at my colleague, Niek’s article, which covers creating, growing and maintaining an innovation portfolio.

And, it goes without saying, should you have comments, experience or questions, by all means, I’d love to hear from you.


Stay posted.

Keep up to date on what our clients have to tell, new tools, training and cool content.