Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
“No mud, no lotus,” says Cooper’s Teresa Brazen. Chuck out your biases and democratize ideas so it’s all hands on deck to find out how your customers tick. Then use that intel to spark innovation.
Designit: Design as an approach to problem-solving isn’t new. Why is it urgent now?
Teresa Brazen: Customer loyalty went out the window with the Internet, so companies had to buckle down and invest in learning a lot more about the people they serve. I call that Design 1.0, a way of understanding customers. Design 2.0 was helping those customers find the products and services to live a better life. Design 3.0 is about how people feel in the world. Fast-forward to the present day, with constant turmoil in the news and technologies that make all news social and your competitors more nimble than you. Feeling is the differentiator. If you’re not already in the business of making people feel good — confident, happy, safe, proud — you’re in trouble.
Designit: What’s the single-most important thing you teach?
TB: That you and everyone in your organization are massively biased and you will naturally laser-focus on the bottom line and business goals because you are so deeply entrenched in that reality. The problem with that perspective is it get’s in the way of understanding your customer and how they currently experience your company. Opportunities for growing your business are lost as a result. Companies often shortcut the customer-learning side. The fix is implementing a process for discovering how your customers tick and using that to spark innovation.
Designit: Why is the process so important?
TB: The moment you buy into becoming a human-centric company — what design is now about — you trigger collective change in-house. That means making your culture more open so ideas can flourish. If you want people within your business to focus more on human needs and the customer, you’d better look at how ideas come to be. Many companies still have an industrial-age model, with silos and an assembly line mentality. To be a design-driven organization you need to be fluid.
Designit: What’s the alternative?
TB: Making creativity flourish across the organization, instead of a top-down approach. The age of the lone brilliant inventor is over. We’re in a new era in which ideas are democratized. Startup culture, reality shows, the DIY and slow food movements, artisanal farming, Instagram-as-fame-maker, hackathons — all of it has changed where ideas come from and how they gain traction. In a nutshell, let everyone share their ideas.
Designit: You risk having everything just be a mess.
TB: Right — no mud, no lotus. Smart CEOs think about how to get the most out of their people. We have a class that teaches people how to facilitate creativity — leading their team to more and better ideas. Ideation might seem easy because “everyone’s doing it,” but how well are they doing it? Are they extracting goodness from people across the organization? Now we’re back to feelings. Satisfy your employees’ need to participate and feel like their ideas matter, and suddenly you have all hands on deck working like mad to understand the customer better. You can hardly go wrong with that.
Designit: What happens if your idea-driven culture doesn’t come up with anything?
TB: A better question is what if you don’t shift and you miss interesting perspectives? Different people solve problems in different ways, so for example, if you keep women and other underrepresented voices out of the equation, you’re missing cognitive diversity, which great design requires. In practical terms, if you want to sell stuff to more than just white men, recruit a diverse group to problem-solve. And create a culture where they feel invited to contribute and take risks.
Designit: What’s the best way to get ideas?
TB: Create a blue-sky atmosphere. Telling your teams they need to come up with the next billion-dollar idea is a naïve approach. It’s better to incentivize people to collaborate and to try new things. Employees are fear-based; their primary motivation is to keep their job, so there’s something of a survivalist mentality. Create a safe environment where people can try things without fear of failing. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying that hard and you’re not stretching as an organization. If you want to be cutting-edge and innovative, you have to learn to extract good ideas from lots of people. It’s a skill we teach: how to look below what may seem ugly or stupid on the surface and really listen for the hidden gem.
Teresa Brazen leads Cooper Professional Education, a learning consultancy within Designit that helps organizations become more creative, innovative and human-centered.