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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

Innovation without the experimentation

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Is it possible to innovate without turning the people you work with into lab rats?

This week I was talking to a leader about using design thinking to enable greater innovation around the learning that was happening at her school. She commented that what she liked about using a design thinking approach was that it gave them a model for developing new innovative approaches without having to experiment on the teachers and students. And let’s face it, no-one likes the idea of using the people they work with as lab rats!

Many organisations use a model of experimental innovation;

giving something a go and hoping for the best.

Often the drivers for experimental innovation are externally imposed initiatives, inadequate resourcing, and/or unrealistic time frames. If you are a leader within an organisation then the chances are that at some time in your career, you have been tasked with implementing something that you did not believe in or didn’t have the money or expertise. It is a very unpleasant situation in which to find yourself.

Externally imposed initiatives that do not align with your values and/or the strategic direction of your organisation are hard to lead. In this situation you have the following five choices:

  1. Comply and keep your fingers, eyes, and toes crossed that the experiment will work. This approach holds significant risks for how others will view your leadership, but on the bright side, you will have someone to blame if it fails!!!

  2. Walk away - working in a way that is incongruent with your values is bad for your long-term health, but walking away is a difficult choice because no-one wants to abandon the people they serve

  3. Delay the implementation in the hope that given enough time ‘this too will pass’. It takes great wisdom and/or experience to figure out if this approach is worth the risk

  4. Put together a sound argument as to why this initiative is not right for your organisation and if possible find others who agree with you to give more weight to your voice

  5. Use a design thinking approach to weave what you have been directed to do into a solution that meets the needs of the people you serve.

Of course, the 5th choice is the one I am backing, and while it will not be possible to achieve every time, the more you focus on the needs of your people, the greater the likelihood that a new initiative will be implemented successfully.

So what does innovation, that is not experimentation, look like?

  1. It starts by devoting time and energy to deeply understanding the problem which you are trying to solve

  2. It keeps the people, the users or your new idea/innovation, always at the centre

  3. It comes up with lots of different solutions for the problem and uses prototyping to test and refine the idea

  4. It pilots the new initiative with a small group of users before full-scale deployment

  5. It validates every stage of the innovation journey to ensure that the solution you are developing meets the needs of the people it is designed to help.

Dealing with inadequate resourcing is always a challenge, but the best piece of advice I ever got about this was to first decide what it is you want to achieve, then figure out how you will resource it. Using this approach I led many initiatives which would never have gotten off the ground if the first thing I’d done was decide if I had the resources to do it. With regards to design thinking methodology, part of refining the prototype for your solution is figuring out how you might resource it, and pivoting back to another idea if you just can’t make the figures work.

Finally unrealistic time frames. Organisations that have embraced a design thinking methodology already have a deep understanding of the needs of the people they serve. This significantly reduces the time needed to understand a problem and then come up with an effective solution.

Any idea, no matter how good it might appear on the surface, is an experiment unless it is implemented through a disciplined approach, that includes:

  • a deep understanding of the problem it is trying to solve, and:

  • a design process that tests and validates the solutions, including piloting with a subset of users ahead of implementation.

If all this sounds imminently sensible to you but you need a hand to get started, or encouragement to keep going, then I would love to assist. You can reach me at [email protected].

And remember a design thinking approach amplifies (and removes the experimental aspect!!!) of any change process you are currently using.

Til next time


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