Copyright 2016,

Creativity is nice, but it only becomes innovation when put to use

Design Thinking is built on observing people -- seeing what they do and don't do

Imagine if we could combine the way artists sense, think, and work with other disciplines like IT (or engineering, medicine, etc) and business (or social enterprise, government, etc).

Think: Shopping cart frames that have lift-out baskets, contoured toothbrushes to reach the corners of your mouth.

We may be able to find needs and create new ways to fulfil them. In some regard, maybe yes, we will be an economy filled with artists. But we'll be artists who are at the same time technologists (or engineers, doctors, etc) and businesspeople (or social entrepreneurs, freelancers, government leaders, etc) and more.

Many people get excited about a new technology or a new market, but forget to focus first on the humans who will use what's being offered to them. It's best to start with what someone needs, and then design what will work and what can economically be offered to them. We call this design thinking.

That very powerful design-thinking triad of (1) desirability, (2) feasibility, and (3) viability is a core concept at IDEO - the firm that basically created the modern mouse (the computer one), still in use decades later, as well as other innovative products and services, many of which you probably use and don't think about at all.

Many successful innovators take ideas from one field (example, mobile phone technology) and apply them in another (e.g. medicine -- see PEEK, a smartphone app and eye-tracker developed for eye-care testing in Kenya).

These innovators include both intrepreneurs (employees) and entrepreneurs. They put creativity to use. For example, Martine Rothblatt who created a multi-billion-dollar-revenue company in satellite technology and radio, then switched to pharmacology, generating $1.5 billion in revenues annually with a new drug.

Innovation: A necessity
Just as global warming is creating more frequent and more extreme climactic crises, it seems that global economic connectivity is creating crises that are more frequent, widespread, and deep. And there's another one — the bot one — to come — yes, bots are going to take our jobs.

So we have to innovate to survive. I believe this is one reason why there's a resurgence of interest in Design Thinking, and it's yet another reason why I teach it and bring together cross-disciplinary teams.

However, training people in design thinking, is easier said than done. More than once I've seen training awaken a desire and capability for innovation, which quickly dies without support and incentive. Once people are trained, is the organisation ready to receive and use the capability?

Will employees be given time and authority to innovate? Will they be rewarded? Are there processes for deciding what to pursue, putting resources on them, and helping employees connect? Are there different processes for sustaining and disrupting innovations? Is it the job of only a few R&D specialists, or are ideas welcome from everyone? Is design thinking applied only to customers experience, or is it also used to create employee experience? Telstra, for example, redesigned their on-boarding process with design thinking and enjoyed a rise in productivity, commitment, engagement, and speedy integration of new hires.

Another problem is that when performance engines are operating at full speed, a lot of companies will switch to ‘autopilot’. Operational efficiency is still continually improved, but the bulk of time and resources is invested in regular business; whatever keeps the engine running. The company itself gradually becomes risk averse. Non-routine tasks and processes with unpredictable outcomes are avoided, which is exactly how innovation is killed.

Moreover, there are so many examples, all around us of situations where both the problem and the solution are unknown.

That's also why Design Thinking is built on observing people -- not just asking them what they want, but seeing what they do and don't do, observing needs or desires they may not know they have, envisioning possibilities they can't imagine if they don't know the technological capabilities.

I believe its now time to celebrate the beginning of an age in which our needs will be met with far fewer resources, and in which we'll have the time and technology to solve problems we've never been able to solve before.

As long as humans have needs and desires, we will have something to do, something to design and something to trade. It'll be a faster revolution than before, so we'll have to prepare (or redesign) ourselves now.

Prof CJ Meadows, Director & Creative Problem Solver, i2i – The Innovation & Insights Centre at the SP Jain School of Global Management