Innovating for Effectiveness: Lessons from Design Firms

By Meyer, Marc H.; Marion, Tucker J. | Research-Technology Management, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Innovating for Effectiveness: Lessons from Design Firms


Meyer, Marc H., Marion, Tucker J., Research-Technology Management


R&D managers seeking to infuse new energy into their innovation processes should look to the recognized superstars of innovation, design fi rms, for inspiration.

OVERVIEW: Product and business innovation are integral to corporate growth. Insights into improving the design and development process can help achieve better innovation outcomes. We report the fi ndings of a study of design fi rms-including IDEO and Continuum-that are recognized as standard bearers for innovation. We found that these fi rms use special approaches to innovation that include team structure, governance, and milestone planning processes. We synthesize the fi ndings into fi ve lessons for the R&D manager: apply user-centered design, defi ne the innovation opportunity space strategically, use agile prototyping, establish communities of practice, and avoid rigorously gated management processes. We offer strategies for implementing these lessons in the R&D organization.

KEY CONCEPTS: innovation, design, building an innovative culture, best practices, design fi rms

Creating true innovation-new types of products or services that can generate entirely new streams of revenue- is arguably the best way to transcend economic cycles and achieve sustainable growth. More and more, large corporations are turning to design fi rms to provide this fundamental innovation. These fi rms have a reputation for excelling in innovation both incremental (such as a new type of packaging design) and radical (such as a new business model that can disrupt an entire industry).

They also have a unique approach to R&D and innovation, one that Jim Utterback et al. (2006) call "design-inspired innovation." This approach involves the application of frameworks and processes for user research and solutions design that emphasize the overall user experience above specifi c features or pricing. The success of these fi rms-Continuum, IDEO, and frog design, for instance- has attracted much attention from corporations seeking to supplement their internal innovation processes.

However, not all corporations choose to hire design fi rms. In many cases, it is the R&D manager who must champion radical innovations throughout the organization, and it is the R&D manager who must foster bolder, more innovative thinking and approaches among R&D staff. This proves especially challenging when the organization's R&D approach has historically been focused on incremental innovation to improve existing products. For many, the diffi cult economic climate of the past several years has tightened innovation budgets, adding to the R&D manager's challenges. What the manager in this situation needs is an R&D catalyst to generate new ideas for products, services, and business models and foster excitement for these ideas. Whether a corporation partners with a design fi rm or not, design fi rm approaches to innovation can provide that catalyst.

The Design Firms

The traditional role of design fi rms is to assist large corporations to create, prototype, and engineer new products and services. Examples range from new product categories to service innovation. For instance, Proctor & Gamble approached Continuum to develop a new product for cleaning fl oors; the result was the Swiffer®-now a billion-dollar product category of fl oor cleaning products for consumer and industrial applications. The Mayo Clinic asked IDEO to help improve patient processing at one of its health care institutions. IDEO turned one of the institution's internal medicine fl oors into a laboratory to study patient-provider interactions. After closely observing the activity in waiting areas and exam rooms, IDEO designed a process to gather feedback that was incorporated into new process and facility designs to improve both the delivery of care and the patient experience.

These are but two examples of how design fi rms investigate the user context, learn about user needs, prototype ideas, and implement distinctive solutions.

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