November 9, 2016    7 minute read

Creativity And Business: What Lies Behind This Strange Combination

Designing Techniques    November 9, 2016    7 minute read

Creativity And Business: What Lies Behind This Strange Combination

Until a couple of decades ago, the concept of design was only applicable to objects and their appearance. In the past, firms would address designers and the world of design to make their products look better, whereas today, design has an entirely different and broader meaning. This merges with business in new and somehow unexpected ways.

The Rise Of Design Thinking

In a world where services and ideas are moving on from products and materiality, designers are more often being asked to design solutions to problems, and not to only “dress things up.”

This is the moment when creativity and business start to merge in a fascinating and exciting way and when concepts like Strategic Design and Design Thinking start to gain success and recognition. Business schools around the world will start to introduce design studios to train their students on new ways of making decisions and solving complex problems, ways which go beyond the standard techniques based on rational thinking processes that everyone is used to.

IDEO is the global design and consulting firm which has pioneered the concept of Design Thinking. Through its human-centered approach, the company aims at helping organisations to innovate by unlocking the creativity of those who drive them.

There is no clear and distinct definition of Design Thinking. Designers do not like tags and appellatives, but one could refer to it as a strategy producing method, particularly focused on addressing humans and their needs, which employs techniques and tools from the world of design to generate original ideas.

Why Leaders Need This New Tool

In a world where unlocking market space and winning the competition is getting more and more challenging, Design Thinking tools allow one to jump outside the static world of rational decision making and to find innovative and creative ideas.

It is only when creative thinking meets critical thinking that unsought solutions to business problems can be found. It is the combination of convergent thinking made of analytical, mathematical, scientific thinking processes, and divergent thinking, made of co-creative, integrative, reflective and visual techniques, which produces unexpected and fruitful outcomes.

Creativity is indeed the “secret sauce” companies need to keep fit and compete in today’s volatile and unpredictable world of business. And leaders must learn how to boost it among their employees.

As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, states:

“Creative leadership isn’t about leaders simply becoming more creative. It’s about individuals leading for creativity. That means you, as a leader, must unlock the creative potential of your organisation, no matter the industry. It’s your job to set the conditions for your organisation to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. It’s a competitive imperative that will keep you ahead in the marketplace”.

Cisco is one such company which is currently exploiting Strategic Design to boost innovation in their industry.

As the external environment gets more and more digital and connected, opportunities arise, and sometimes single companies cannot seize them alone. That is why Cisco has introduced the so-called “Berlin Living Lab.” The idea behind these Hyper-innovation Labs is bringing together multiple organisations into a process of innovation and development of new concepts. This ecosystem innovation allows companies to collaborate to develop and commercialise new ideas instead of relying on startups to create innovations and then buying into them.

“We believe that no one company can deliver the full breadth of technology solutions that customers need at the pace the market requires. […] This process brings our teams together with partners, customers, and other companies working to find new business opportunities. Through intense analysis and collaboration, these lab sessions result in breakthrough ideas that can be implemented or invested in by those that participate, including Cisco.”

Chuck Robbins, CEO, Cisco

But how does this process work? Tools and methods are drawn from design thinking, lean startup, and business model innovation methodologies are implemented, and the team has the task of leading the process, unlocking the creativity of the different participants and facilitating the successful cooperation among individuals who are part of different companies and thus have different cultures and objectives. The whole process covers four phases: identification of the focus zones, the definition of the problem, prototyping, achievement and follow-up.

Once the process is completed, the launch value, related to the monetary or reputational value derived from the commercialisation of the innovation, is not the only kind of value that has been generated. The process is, in fact, able to generate something which is even more relevant: a strategic value, coming from the connections among participants and the potential future collaborations, and an exit value, related to that knowledge which is created during the process and that can be exploited by each participant in the future.

Digital McKinsey Puts Design Thinking At The Core

Another well-known company making extensive use of Design Thinking concepts is McKinsey. In particular, the consultancy firm, when helping its clients shape and deliver digital transformation, focuses on customers and their unmet needs, “radically rethinking services and interfaces to make life simpler, better, and more delightful.”

By levering on a global team of digital and experience designers, dedicated design studios all over the world, lateral thinking processes and powerful research techniques, the company can lead its clients to generate innovative ideas. Setting up “design rooms” when Design Thinking tools are applied and where people from different departments and with different backgrounds (design, IT, engineering, operations, project management, etc.) can cooperate in cross-functional teams, McKinsey allows its clients to develop successful innovative solutions which are faster, cheaper and more user friendly.

The Giants Looking For Creativity

Introducing Design Thinking as a new strategy making method within organisations brings challenges that companies need to accept. Apart from resetting expectations to reshape the organisational culture and accepting the higher ambiguity related to design (what is the return on investment in creativity?), companies also need to agree the higher level of risk linked to transformative innovation. Nevertheless, Cisco does not seem to be the only IT giant to have understood the potential of Design Thinking.

Back in 1996, Samsung’s forward-looking leader, Lee Kun-Hee, realised that to become a top brand, Samsung needed to invest in building expertise in design, which he believed would become “the ultimate battleground for global competition in the 21st century.” He thus initiated the creation of a design-focused culture that would support world-class innovation.

With software becoming central to their operations, other IT companies, such as IBM and General Electric, have started realising that Design Thinking is an exceptional tool to simplify and humanise the high level of complexity that players in this industry need to manage. IBM has thus invested, in November 2013, $100m to build a Design Studio in Austin, Texas, and has planned on hiring 1000 designers to transform the firm into a massive design organisation. In a similar way, General Electric started formalising tools, metrics and languages to support its emerging design practice as a way not only to develop products but also to enable nimble innovation.

These companies, active in a fast-changing environment as the IT industry is, rely on innovation rather than efficiency and thus need to be able to define problems artfully and experiment solutions. Design Thinking is the way of doing it.

Creative Types? Just A Myth

You might now be asking yourself: what if one is not the creative type?

Well, creativity is like a muscle that works better when trained. It is only by inserting creativity in one’s routine, taking the time to reflect, that one will become the creative type. Everyone can be creative: the problem is that most people just do not know they can develop this attribute.

That is why today’s companies need leaders who lead for creativity. People within organisations must understand how they can insert creative processes into their daily routines thus unlocking their potential to find innovative solutions to complex business problems.

The future of organisations, the “secret sauce” for them to survive today’s fast changing business environment, lies in fact in the union between creativity and business.

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