What is Innovation?

Innovation is difficult to define precisely but for most people it involves “thinking outside the box” and “trying something different” in order to make things better.  We might be enhancing a process, a tool, a system or an environment but the bottom line is that we’re not content with the status quo and want to make things better.  And so we innovate.

How can we Design for Innovation?

It turns out that there are things we can do to enhance innovation. Over the past fifty years, a process known as Design Thinking has emerged as the dominant framework for ensuring that innovative solutions actually work for real human beings. It puts users at the centre of the process and uses “rapid prototyping and testing” to better understand constraints and evolve towards a promising solution.

Although the exact terms to describe design thinking may vary from author to author, there is more similarity than difference. At IDI, we describe this process in the following way.

Stages in the Design Thinking Process

Wonder, Empathize and Discover, Frame the Problem, Ideate, Prototype and Evolve, Spread, Archive, Reimagine

It all begins with eyes, ears — and heart. Innovators notice when things are not as they should be. They believe that what is, isn’t what must be. And they care enough do dig in and contribute something to the solution. It starts with Why? And quickly moves to Why Not?

A Wondering, Question, or Hunch
Innovators pay attention. They notice what isn’t quite as it should be. And they have hunches about how life could be different. They bring assumptions, beliefs and all sorts of biases with these hunches.  But they dig in and use the rest of the process to continually reframe their understanding of the situation. And themselves.
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Empathize and Discover
Design thinking seeks to understand a problem by listening deeply to the people who are most closely involved with and impacted by the problem. It doesn’t start with experts sitting in a boardroom. It begins with users. It begins with genuine conversation. It begins with empathy.

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Frame the Problem
After listening and empathizing with people, analyze and synthesize your observations in order to frame the problem as a problem statement: what needs to happen for life and learning to improve for the user? This problem statement helps the team to focus ideas on what is essential.

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After empathizing with the user and framing the problem, identify a range of possible solutions – the more the better, looking at the problem from a wide range of perspectives. Sketch how a solution might work. Gather feedback. Revise and consider again how this solution improves life for the user.

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Prototype, Test and Evolve
Put promising ideas into action. If it’s a product, build a number of inexpensive, scaled down versions to test with users. If it’s a process or an environment, try them out in a number of different settings. One by one investigate each solution’s impact on the problem. Reject or revise based on feedback from users. Use insights to redefine the problem or generate new problems. Develop a deeper understanding of how this group of people think, feel and behave.

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Archive, Reimagine or Spread
Archive failed attempts as learning. Consider how a promising prototype might be spread to similar users or reimagined for other contexts. Share broadly and let the learning continue.

Never Straightforward

These steps may appear on paper as linear and sequential. But they are not. At each stage we develop greater empathy for the users. As we test our prototypes, we generate new ideas and gain fresh insight into the problem. We may even redefine the problem because of new learning. We go back and forth between the stages, constantly learning, constantly refining, constantly generating – until it is clear that life and learning have been improved for those involved.