How CEOs Can Use Design Thinking to Promote Innovation

Randy Salzman, Co-author, Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector

How CEOs Can Use Design Thinking to Promote Innovation

In researching design thinking for a decade, one interesting outcome is the counter-intuitive observation that upper management may offer less hindrance to innovation than mid-level management and peer groups.  The “easy” reason large organizations often lose their edge, after all, is that the C-suite is too centered on command and control to allow innovators to try, and potentially fail.

But our work indicates that more often than not, CEOs and even CFOs are willing to risk change but their chances are minimized because front-line ideas rarely rise through the organization into the boardroom.  Mid-levels and peer groups stymie innovators until whatever new ideas have lost crucial lead times.

We hypothesize that this phenomena is because few harried professionals in lower and middle management have the time for studying something new and, hence, “back burner” innovators to distraction. Plus, mid-levels have usually gotten into management by mastering the old regimen, why should they seek to argue with their success?

We haven’t studied these “why” hypotheses but, in our research, we’ve discovered what some C-suites are doing to nudge mid-levels and peers to find innovation time. This “how” management can foster innovation is a best practices list we’ve discovered in organizations as varied as Intuit,  3M, Children’s Health System of Texas and even massive federal organizations like Health and Human Services and the Veterans Administration.

First, CEOs can recognize the validity of David Gleicher’s change formula. Behavioral alterations in large organizations are a function of four factors, Gleicher notes: dissatisfaction with the status quo, clarity and resonance of a perceived new future, and the existence of a pathway to get there, all balanced against any professed loss associated with the change.

Our research for Design Thinking for the Greater Good:  Innovation in the Social Sector (DT4GG)– out in September 2017 from Columbia Business Press -- illustrates how all four aspects of Gleicher’s formula are positively affected by design thinking.

“People feel threatened by work they think is going to disrupt their job. You (upper management) have to help them to see themselves in the future . . . use their stories, their insight, and their expertise so that they hear their voice reflected in the future state,” as Eli MacLaren, a design-thinking change agent for Children’s Health System, told us. “You co-create so that they feel like they helped build this new model. There’s an old adage that change is painful when done to you but powerful when done by you. If you can just tap into that, you’re golden.”

Another key feature in many stories we researched for the book is the avoidance of top-down standardization in favor of locally-determined, customized solutions and processes. For a large organization, standardization may seem efficient in the short run, but in today’s complex world adaptability favors solutions grounded in local realities. In short, let frontline teams try within upper management’s minimal guidelines.

Another way of considering this aspect of innovation is for upper management to think in terms of constructing and managing a portfolio of concepts. This, of course, is the mindset of venture capitalists: make small bets fast and then see which ideas blossom. Many bifurcations we draw in the innovation space—disruptive versus incremental, strategic versus tactical, long-term versus short-term— cast the choices we make as either-or when what we’re really seeking is many -- many approaches to solving problems and addressing opportunities. After having the many ideas, we’ll test the assumptions, co-create with stakeholders and iterate to discover the best answer(s) for any particular moment in our complex times.

Perhaps most importantly, upper management can provide a structured innovation methodology along with the opportunity to learn it well. Design experts and consultants, frequently comfortable with ambiguity by nature, rarely rely on a structured process, preferring to think in terms of general activities like exploration, ideation and testing. However, in our years of working with typical organizational managers -- usually non-designers -- we have found these generalities don’t equip most employees to integrate innovation into day-to-day practice.

Nothing illustrates the C-suite is admitting that it doesn’t have the answers and is allowing mid-levels to experiment than a process – whether ours or others’ – teaching lower levels to explore deeply, empathize continually, ideate rapidly, prototype quickly and iterate constantly. In short: provide design-thinking training and get out of the way.

CEOs should aid employees who will “bootstrap” their way to innovation, by this we mean workers who have a competency in design methods, confidence in their ability to work with them, time to spend on innovation projects, access to actual stakeholders and the freedom to place small bets in the real world.

Unfortunately, the challenge for CEOs building a strategic capability where everybody innovates is that many would-be design thinkers lack training, confidence, time, support, and enough autonomy to conduct experiments.

Provide these and CEOs minimize resistance from peers and mid and lower management. Then, innovation ideas rise to the top.

About the Author

Randy Salzman, a long-time communications and creativity professor has been writing about, teaching and consulting on design since providing Dr. Jeanne Liedtka help with The Catalysts. Prior, Salzman taught at several small colleges, always being a “jack of all trades” in interpersonal and group communications, broadcasting, film, journalism, and advertising/public relations. Hence, “Salz” has a wide creativity repertoire. Presently consulting and teaching in design thinking and empathy, his recent clients include Cisco, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Net Impact and The Washington State Community College System. He is the co-author of Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector, due out in September 2017 from Columbia University Press.