Use design thinking to supercharge innovation and shoot for the moon

By Nicolas Zimmerman, Editor-in-Chief, SAMA

Technological advances are accelerating the pace of business change like never before. Markets and customers can change overnight. Yesterday’s suppliers can become tomorrow’s competition, and yesterday’s competition can become tomorrow’s strategic partner.

The companies that can’t adapt — and fast — will find themselves swallowed up by the companies that can. You already know all this. But what can you do about it? SAMA and 3M recently co-hosted an executive symposium at 3M’s campus in Dusseldorf, Germany, where practitioners from 3M, Arcadis and DHL shared their experiences from the point of view of their respective companies.

Read on to find out what you, as a leader in your SAM organization, can do to position your company for sustainable success:

“Shoot for the moon.”

Most SAM organizations are expected to grow by at least double the rate of the rest of the company. This means that creating value on the margins — smoothing out a customer’s supply chain, say — isn’t going to deliver the impact expected by upper management.

At 3M that means “shooting for the moon,” says Dan Snustad, technical director in Western Europe for 3M Research and Development. “People talk about failure, but I talk about ‘fast learning,’” he says. “If you don’t have failures, you’re going to be incremental. You’re going to be ‘me too.’”

At 3M that means creating a culture that encourages taking risks. Management at 3M encourages a culture of innovation and risk taking in a number of ways, including:

  • Boundaryless organization. Employees have carte blanche to talk to the owner or marketer of a technology or capability to see how they might be able to leverage it for a customer.
  • “15 percent time.” Employees are empowered to spend up to 15 percent of their work time to pursue projects they’re passionate about but may lay outside the scope of their normal work duties. The initiative has produced some of the company’s best sellers and become a model for other companies looking to push an innovation agenda.
  • The ability to move very quickly to prototype, offering multiple early stages where employees can try and fail without retribution.

“For innovation to happen,” Snustad says, “You have to create the space to allow risk.”

Design thinking isn’t just another process. It’s a mindset.”

So how does this mindset filter out into the organization? One way is through 3M’s embrace of the principles of design thinking. Monica Dalla Riva, the company’s head of design in Europe, stresses that design thinking isn’t about aesthetics. The word design comes from the Latin de-signare, or “to create meaning.” Riva uses this to guide her team’s design efforts and 3M’s broader approach to customer-inspired innovation:

“Design thinking isn’t just another process. With a process, you do all the right steps and then you’re done. With a mindset, you have to think at every step of the way, ‘Am I doing this for the customer? Is it delivering meaning?’”

What else is design thinking NOT? It’s also not just another way to generate new ideas, Riva says. Every company has ideas. The goal of design thinking should be to find the most meaningful ones.

For Riva, the goal of design thinking is to create meaningful experiences for the customer. Thinking of your customer as people, and zeroing in on all the different touchpoints your company has with your customer, will serve as your guide to making sure you are working on solving the right customer problems.

One challenge of a design thinking approach is data — specifically, there’s no data about the future. So how do you create meaningful innovation for a future state you don’t have concrete information about? If you create innovation that’s too far ahead of its time, it won’t be meaningful for people and won’t be adopted.

That’s why Riva’s team starts by looking 10 to 15 years in the future — by leveraging internal expertise and outside research to build future scenarios — and then works backward, to look three to five years into the future. But design thinking isn’t just a way of generating insights about the hazy future; it also can be a very concrete tool to engage with your customers.

Riva and her team used a design thinking approach to reimagine the typical “Tech Day” where customers file past a bunch of tables haphazardly covered with the company’s solutions. Riva and her team created “Design Nights” with the goal of creating new ways to engage meaningfully with the customers by telling a story. Rather than grouping technologies chronologically, or by 3M industry segment, the technologies were grouped and presented in a way that would be meaningful to the customer. Because in the end, if you’re not bringing meaning to your customers, you’re just another vendor peddling just another product.

“We’d like to see this a little better.”

What does it look like when you use design thinking for an actual customer engagement? Here we turn to Arcadis, the Netherlands-based design, engineering and management consulting firm, and Jim Ford, the company’s global head of client development.

One of the many areas Arcadis works in is environmental remediation, and this success story grew out of a simple customer request: “How can we make this process more impactful by getting a better visualization of your recommendations?” To put it very simply, companies hire Arcadis to build conceptual models of sites that need may need remediation, which the companies can use to make decisions about risk and resource allocation.

In the past, this was all in two dimensions, on paper. But recently a customer asked Arcadis if it could make its predictive models more dynamic and interactive. The SAM worked with outside software providers to develop a tool to build an interactive, three-dimensional digital representation of the site. Suddenly, the customer could grasp the specifics of the site much more intuitively. But they wanted to be able to drill down deeper into the data.

For this, Arcadis built a cloud-based platform and leveraged IBM Watson to bring predictive analytics into the equation. Then, using 3D printing and augmented/virtual reality, Arcadis rendered the models the customer could feel, touch and manipulate. This cut the time to remediate by several years, helping the customer make more informed business decisions and saving millions of dollars. And it all started with the innocent customer request, “We’d like to see this a little better.”

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