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Design Thinking: A tested method for creating breakthrough innovation

While the word “innovation” thunders from the boardroom and from the ranks, few companies actually build a sustainable process for generating real solutions that create value. Instead, they hastily focus on un-validated and over-caffeinated pet ideas of the CEO. Or worse, they spend a lot of time and resources recreating a slightly different version of their same core offering.

The two, too common scenarios noted above are not innovation. Real innovation is not a product line extension or an additional feature. Spare us. The world is already surfeited with such nonsense.

Real innovation requires thinking outside of your own business paradigm.

Real innovations that make major traction in the market solve problems people didn’t know they had. Real innovations get out of the office and embody the matter. They walk in the shoes of the intended audience, even visit them at home or their office. They begin with empathy, then follow an iterative process, and then reap substantial rewards.

This formal innovation process was named just a few years ago. While it remains contested, Design Thinking is a set of principles—from mindset and roles to process—that work for consumer products, software, services, even in the social sector.

Design Thinking is a method for solving complex problems. Think of Design Thinking as installing a new operating system for life: it’s that revolutionary. Looking at the world with an inspired eye for redesigning every aspect that could be improved is the mindset. There are few experiences that could not be improved.

As noted by Tim Brown, now the CEO of IDEO, there are three spaces to explore, which overlap: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

Here’s the skinny version:

  • Inspiration, the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions: this stage involves interviewing, observing, sketches, mock-ups, and scenario-building.
  • Ideation, the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas: this stage involves building prototypes & exploring the balance between practical functionality and emotional appeal.
  • Implementation, the path that leads from the project room to the market: this stage involves clearly communicating the idea and proving/showing that it will work, and validating a business model for the concept.

Design Thinking follows a seven-step framework: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. These steps overlap one another and are repeated in iterations to produce concepts that work.

While Design Thinking came out of product development, graphic design, and engineering fields, its processes and spaces are being adopted by research and development, marketing, and product management departments in many firms across the globe.

The process requires some non-linear thinking and allows for the devil’s advocate role to be voiced. For these reasons, many companies cannot allow it into their culture—to their own detriment and decline.

Companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Target, Apple, IKEA, as well as Bank of America, the Mayo Clinic and a host of others you know by name are defining market trends and market cap by employing elements of Design Thinking in their innovation efforts.

If your boardroom and hallways thunder with the call to innovate, get real. Try some processes with proven efficacy. Don’t just rush into tomorrow the same as yesterday with a little more haste and stress.

This article was written by Michael Graber and originally appeared on Disruptor League.