Nowadays, innovation is everyone’s business: It doesn’t matter if you’re a corporate manager, graphic designer, product owner, or a marketer – everyone is expected to get lean, do better with less, and produce greater value in the age of technology, digitalization, and globalization. But how can anyone become an imaginative thinker and spot opportunities to maximize value for business, people, and planet? This toolbox used by adidas’ innovation managers might be the answer to dust off your thinking cap.
But I’m not creative, or innovative…
Let me question that. Have you ever come up with a wonderful idea to thrust a project forward, only to be silenced with a ‘that’s how we do things here’ when you tried to bring that idea to life? Or has someone shaken their head at you before you even got to explain your wonderful idea? If so, you’re a frustrated thinker with a potential innovation that might have been hindered by behavioral rigidity or human biases.
Another factor that might make innovation offsetting to you is that innovation is one of those terms (just like sustainability, or agile, or sprint) that gets thrown out and about in the business lingo, but no one really knows its concrete application or meaning. Asya Arabadzhiyska, adidas’ Ecosystem Designer, understands innovation as means to creating new and maximizing existing value for stakeholders – be it people, profits, the planet. The sweet spot? Designing for all three at once, which is part of her day-to-day job.
Embrace design thinking to fuel innovation
Asya thinks that in an age of climate crisis, social inequality, and speedy economic development, we will increasingly need to design services, processes, and products that not only maximize economic benefits, but also bring holistic change to make things better. Her team at adidas believes that we can fuel innovation to enable societies and communities adopt the change. Think FUTURECRAFT.LOOP or adidas’ most recent Made To Be Remade initiative: state-of-the-art innovation to enable social change.
But the process of innovating can also be somehow systematic. Design thinking, for instance, starts with asking better questions. Pondering on more interesting questions than how can we sell more X or how can we make more money with Y can help you discover more original ideas and come up with better long-lasting solutions. The key to design thinking is to come up with novel ways to address human wants/needs/desires by using empathy and human-centered principles, then testing those ideas in order to make them better.
How to apply design thinking
The design thinking framework has a set flow: It starts with immersion, then ideation, and finally implementation. The framework can be broken down into five actionable steps that make up the design thinkers guiding process. However, these steps are an orientation and not a set of rigid rules: bend the timelines and steps to fit your thinking, as at every step you’ll make new discoveries that require you to go back and tweak previous steps, questioning yourself and your assumptions.
Design thinking step 1: Emphasize
Design thinking is rooted in a human-centered approach, where society and people are at the forefront of the design process. As Asya explains, “In the end, with design thinking you’re trying to solve a problem and improve something, be it someone’s life, choices, a community, or the environment. Or all at once!” The aim of this step is to paint a clear picture of who your end users are. What challenges do they face, and what needs and expectations need to be met?
You can spearhead this step as holistically as you please: field research, interviews, data collection… Depends on which department or role you’re in, some data might be more relevant than the other. However, don’t obsess over user-driven criteria: market research can help you understand trends or solutions, but it’s hard for customers to know they want something that doesn’t yet exist – so don’t limit yourself or your imagination!
Design thinking step 2: Problem statement
After engaging and observing your audience, you’ll be headed towards understanding the problem more deeply. Asya explains that “as an innovator, answering the question of who or what am I designing for, and what is the problem they’re struggling with is, is the first challenge for design thinkers.” This step is critical, as the answers will guide the entire design process from here on. It provides a goal to focus on and something to cross your theories or prototypes against.
When framing your problem statement, though, focus on the user’s needs rather than those of the business: “Designing solutions added to business as usual is more expensive in the long run, than adding social or environmental parameters in the beginning of the design process,” explains Asya. Being responsible in the process is an investment.
Design thinking step 3: Ideate
Go crazy! With a clear problem statement in mind and an exploration of the ecosystem where the consumer lives, you’ll now aim to come up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible. You can start curating opportunity spaces and explore the value these opportunities bring. Asya recommends spending some time in this phase to avoid connecting ideas that are unrelated. Being strategic and picking the ideas that bring value – and are feasible – is a complex step that requires some time to master.
Design thinking steps 4 & 5: Prototype and test
Once you’ve narrowed your ideas, down you can turn them into tiny versions of the whole project: prototypes! Prototyping gives you something tangible that can be tested on real people, which is crucial in ensuring your idea works for them. Depending on what you’re testing, prototypes can take various forms: from templates, or interactive designs to digital prototypes, scribbles or pilot events.
After you’ve created your prototype, you can test it on real users. Maybe it’s an e-mail that you want to make sure is understandable for everyone: show it to your dad. Maybe it’s a new piece of code that creates a pop-up in a website: show it to your peer. Based on their feedback, you can make changes and improvements before launching the real deal.
But I am not a designer…
So what? You don’t need to be a designer or a CEO to foster empathy, human-centered thinking, testing or collaboration. Take it step by step: you might choose to focus on just one aspect of the design thinking process, such as getting to know your customers and conduct user interviews to find out what they are missing. Maybe you want to make use of the collaborative flow of design thinking? The next time you experience a blocker, you might hold a session with stakeholders from several departments to come up with more holistic solutions. Remember: if nothing changes, nothing will change!