By Marc H. Meyer (MIT) & Tucker J. Marion (Northeastern University)
Creating true innovation—new types of products or services that can generate entirely new streams of revenue—is arguably the best way to transcend economic cycles and achieve sustainable growth. More and more, large corporations are turning to design firms to provide this fundamental innovation. These firms have a reputation for excelling in innovation both incremental (such as a new type of packaging design) and radical (such as a new business model that can disrupt an entire industry).
They also have a unique approach to R&D and innovation, one that Jim Utterback et al. (2006) call “design-inspired innovation.” This approach involves the application of frameworks and processes for user research and solutions design that emphasize the overall user experience above specific features or pricing. The success of these firms—Continuum, IDEO, and frog design, for instance—has attracted much attention from corporations seeking to supplement their internal innovation processes.
However, not all corporations choose to hire design firms. In many cases, it is the R&D manager who must champion radical innovations throughout the organization, and it is the R&D manager who must foster bolder, more innovative thinking and approaches among R&D staff. This proves especially challenging when the organization’s R&D approach has historically been focused on incremental innovation to improve existing products. For many, the difficult economic climate of the past several years has tightened innovation budgets, adding to the R&D manager’s challenges. What the manager in this situation needs is an R&D catalyst to generate new ideas for products, services, and business models and foster excitement for these ideas. Whether a corporation partners with a design firm or not, design firm approaches to innovation can provide that catalyst.
The Design Firms
The traditional role of design firms is to assist large corporations to create, prototype, and engineer new products and services. Examples range from new product categories to service innovation. For instance, Proctor & Gamble approached Continuum to develop a new product for cleaning floors; the result was the Swiffer®—now a billion-dollar product category of floor cleaning products for consumer and industrial applications. The Mayo Clinic asked IDEO to help improve patient processing at one of its health care institutions. IDEO turned one of the institution’s internal medicine floors into a laboratory to study patient-provider interactions.
After closely observing the activity in waiting areas and exam rooms, IDEO designed a process to gather feedback that was incorporated into new process and facility designs to improve both the delivery of care and the patient experience. These are but two examples of how design firms investigate the user context, learn about user needs, prototype ideas, and implement distinctive solutions. And neither was a one-time, isolated activity. The process of user-centered innovation at both Proctor & Gamble and the Mayo Clinic continue to spawn new developments. The approach of these organizations and their design firm partners to creating a continuous stream of innovation is an ongoing source of competitive advantage. In order to understand how design firms approach innovation, we developed a partnership with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) to contact its members, design firms of varying sizes. IDSA’s mission is to advance the quality and impact of design; it is the largest organization of its kind, linking industry and academia.
The firms we approached were highly cooperative. Forty-four companies—65% of those contacted—returned our survey, yielding a rich trove of data. Respondent firms ranged in size from just two employees to well over a hundred; the average participant had about a dozen employees. We then held on-site discussions with a subset of six of the responding firms. These interviews focused on how the firms approach their work to produce the best results.
Interviewees included members of the largest firms, such as IDEO and Continuum, as well as participants from smaller ones with just several million dollars in annual revenue. These firms were chosen because they represented a cross section of the empirical study in terms of corporate revenue and size. While this study focuses on U.S. design firms, there are many similar firms elsewhere in the world. In fact, many of the firms in our study have international satellite offices in cities such as Seoul, Beijing, Milan, and London. Design has become a dynamic global business. It is also an evolving business. Design firms that once provided primarily aesthetic consulting now offer a wide range of strategies and practices to foster innovation in services, software, and complex physical product lines.
The larger design firms now do much more than just tactical new product development. The spectrum of their innovation work includes new brands, new systems, and new services—all linked to the user experience. Innovation in channels and financial models can also come into play for such projects. For the largest of the participating firms, this type of strategy consulting now accounts for as much as half of annual revenue. It is this ability to transcend project silos and spread innovation into all the branches of an organization that has allowed these firms to develop approaches to innovation that differ markedly from corporate norms, approaches that can offer useful innovation lessons to corporate R&D organizations.
Learning from the Best-Practice Leaders in Innovation
The design firms approach projects from a very different perspective from that taken by more traditional R&D processes. Regardless of project type or technology, this approach begins not with technology or marketing challenges, but rather with a consideration from the target users’ point of view. This takes design firms into business, service, and channel innovation, far beyond simply engineering a better widget. Our research revealed several common threads that differentiate this approach to innovation from traditional best practices. We have synthesized these threads into five succinct lessons for the R&D manager.
Lesson 1: True innovation emerges from a deep understanding of the user.
Contrary to popular conception, design firms do not brainstorm their way into innovations. In fact, only half of participating firms indicated that they engage in structured brainstorming on a regular basis. Instead, design teams set aside whatever ideas they might initially have to enter the world of the target user. The goal is to understand as completely as possible the user’s context and experience. Only then do teams begin the process of creating new product, service, or business concepts to improve that user experience. Increasingly, design firms are mastering nontraditional methods of unearthing user insights, engaging a body of theories and methods sometimes referred to as empathic design or more generally, user-centered design (von Hippel 1988; Leonard-Barton and Rayport 1997; Schrage 2000; Norman 2002; Thomke and von Hippel 2002; Atkinson and Hammersley 2007; Meyer 2007). Firms pursuing this approach invest heavily in creating opportunities for in-market learning for their engineering staff, including packaging and process engineers as well as product engineers. Unlike many large corporations, where engineers expect to receive and are expected to follow requirements from separate product management and marketing groups, design firms have engineers working with designers to build a shared understanding of user needs and collaborate in creating new solutions.
Unlike many major corporations, particularly those in consumer packaged goods, the design firms in our study eschewed quantitative market analysis and data collection. Of the firms surveyed, 78% preferred in-depth interviewing with less than ten people over large-scale quantitative methods during the design phase. Their preference was for qualitative research models designed to achieve a deeper understanding of the consumer’s needs. As a design firm chief stated, “For our research, we view user research as a deep understanding of people. We view four intensive hours with ten people as more valuable than one hour with forty people. We see what is important in their lives. We tape them; we interview them. We give them early mock-ups to test.” Another design leader said, “We keep adding people to our intensive study of the user experience until we stop learning new things. Surprisingly, that often begins to happen after we have gone deep with seven or eight users.” For those accustomed to validating new product and service concepts with large-scale, empirical preference-share tests, this is startling. How can design firms possibly learn more with small panels and one-on-one interviews? For the design firm, it is quality of information, not quantity, that leads to insight.
When asked about quantitative market research, the design leaders we interviewed argued that empirical studies, by their nature, require the development of short surveys that can only test obvious features and price against current products in the market. One firm manager remarked, “Qualitative analysis is key to our process. Quantitative data and analyses are simply not very effective in designing breakthrough products. We do very little quantitative work. It’s a lot easier to show an executive committee a video of why someone hates a vacuum cleaner versus looking at a House of Quality chart.”
Pervasive among all design firms in our study was their focus on truly understanding the user and the opportunity space at hand. Methods used include extensive field investigation, depth interviews with users, and an almost anthropological approach to data collection (as opposed to traditional quantitative studies). The power of this approach is shown by a project carried out by one of our interviewees. This design firm was asked to help a large manufacturer develop a new line of shower fixtures. Rather than writing a one-page survey and mailing it to thousands of current and prospective customers, asking them to check off features that they might want in their shower, the design firm took a more direct approach. The team had contractors install shower stalls in the design studio with a wide range of current and prototype fixtures. Then, it was shower time!
The team needed this active, direct experience in the context of use to understand the needs and frustrations of the user. And it was from this experiment that the team created the first multifunction shower head. This new product surged to market leadership upon introduction.
Understanding the customer—both the opportunities and the challenges for innovation as well as the context of use—can be difficult. The path of least resistance for the R&D team is to try to obtain this insight through traditional means, including focus groups and surveys. However, these market research methods ordinarily miss the important latent needs of the customer that tend to emerge only by engaging the user in the place of use. Design firms relish these latent needs and use them to drive new solutions. R&D managers would be well served to have staff work directly with users in the home, the office, the factory, the laboratory, or the construction site. Listening to and learning from the user create fertile ground for breakthrough innovation.
Lesson 2: Approach design in two steps: First, think big and then examine the details.
The design firms we studied engage in a dual approach to the design process. They think big at first, and then give highly detailed attention to the fi nest elements of product, packaging, system, or service.
All of the firms surveyed approach innovation by first considering entire use cases, and with these, user experiences. This might include the user’s buying experience at the front end, experiences through the service life, and the disposal or recycling process at the back end. In this stage, design teams conceive not only of better next-generation products, but also of complementary products and services. For example, a design team working for a building products company might conceive of a new type of installation service to accompany a new type of energy-efficient window. “We design on a systems-level perspective,” one design firm leader told us.
“Our process begins with a value proposition . . . how a solution can affect the big picture . . . the total use of the product.” The larger design firms also focus at this stage on strategy issues such as business model innovation or business process transformation. “We are not just designing a better-looking part, we want to design a better business solution,” another firm chief said. “We get informed and design to the total opportunity space of the business problem. It’s simple, but so many companies get it so wrong.”
Once large-scale issues are tentatively settled, design teams then become highly focused on the minutiae of a new concept, giving attention to the smallest detail in order to improve the entire user experience. For instance, a design concept that allows the window to be installed from inside the house can make installation more convenient, a better way to tilt the window may make cleaning easier, or a frame and molding may be shaped to give an impression of solidity and substance. The successful design engineer sees these details as the difference between a good design and a great one.
Design firms earn their keep by taking nothing for granted, challenging and rethinking every piece of a solution to enhance the user’s experience. Few corporations make design-inspired innovation as central to the innovation process as systems engineering for performance or platforming for cost. Those that do—companies like Honda or Apple—are consistent winners.
Lesson 3: Build communities of practice across flat organizations.
Much like the corporations they serve, larger design firms have traditionally been organized in functional departments or groups, such as industrial design, mechanical engineering, branding and communications, and strategy. Staff members were deployed to specific projects from these functional groupings. We found, however, that several of the largest firms are transforming themselves to break down internal silos and restructuring their organizations around communities of practice—groups of practitioners from across disciplines (i.e., strategy, branding, or industrial design) with expertise or interest in a particular subfield sharing information and collaborating. These communities are aligned to major growth opportunities, such as design for emerging markets, innovation in healthcare and medical devices, business model innovation, or sustainability. Increasingly, these communities are taking hold as primary organizational homes for employees, who are then assigned individually to work on specific client engagements where their knowledge will add the most value.
This organizational strategy aligns insights and research processes that are strongly multidisciplinary and applies these insights across different industries, leveraging staff strengths and interests to maximum effect.
Design firms are also strikingly flat and meritocratic in their corporate structure. Design executives serve as coaches and advocates for teams rather than as check-points and enforcers; their role is not to administer a predetermined process, but to guide decisions and represent the team’s perspective with the client and with the rest of the firm. Office layout is a reflection of the culture. Office layouts in design firms tend to have few dividing walls or cubicles, a number of team room spaces dedicated to individual client projects, and of course, contemporary furnishings. This physical structure also increases information intensity and sharing of creative ideas. All three are hard to find in the typical corporate R&D environment.
Design teams usually have a highly experienced, empowered project manager, just as we find in most corporate R&D teams. However, in design firms, the project coordination role is often rotated among the senior design staff; there is not a dedicated team of program or project managers. We also observed a common practice of having dual leads on projects. For instance, a product design engagement requiring engineering expertise may have a mechanical/electrical lead and an industrial design lead, supplemented by two to five team members drawn from across key disciplines. These small teams are populated by what one design leader called “hyperfunctional” practitioners, industrial designers who may work in industrial design, engineering, prototyping, and vendor sourcing for a single project on a given day.
Perhaps this is why the dynamic in successful design firms is fresh and exciting, and turnover is remarkably low even where the pace of work might normally lead to burnout after four or five years. The development of communities of practice spanning projects, focused on entirely different industries, also provides individual team members with creative and knowledge-sharing outlets beyond their specific assignments. This, too, keeps things fresh and alive.
In contrast, their corporate clients rarely allow internal R&D staff similar freedom or flexibility to cross discipline-based boundaries. Corporate R&D managers should consider how allowing personnel more freedom to collaborate across silos and acquire different experiences and perspectives might spark ideas and rejuvenate the innovation process.
Lesson 4: Develop processes and technologies for agile development.
Design firms are strong believers in the agile development process first used by software developers but now more universally applied to products and services well beyond software. The modus operandi is to quickly build, test, improve, and test again. User insights are translated into new design prototypes in a matter of days. Prototypes are reviewed with clients as quickly as possible and then put immediately into small-panel user tests.
The centerpiece of agile development is what one firm director called “intense prototyping throughout the process. We cut foam, do hot melts, do rough models, create rapid prototypes. No firm can be fast enough at this point—we use any and all available tools. We often breadboard mechanisms and circuits to show clients and potential customers.” To accomplish this, all of the firms in our study maintain internal model shops and advanced computer-aided design (CAD) capabilities; many have their own 3D printers.
An important element of an agile development process, perhaps the most important, is fluidity. The most successful firms work to keep the design of a new product, service, or process as fluid as possible as the design proceeds through development. As one design chief remarked, “One key item is not overdesigning too early in the process. As engineers and designers, a common mistake is to rush to completion on a design.” Most firms review each prototype iteration with prospective users.
Eighty percent of the firms surveyed execute detailed design reviews on prototypes all the way through the preproduction hand-off to clients, and 55% include field trials as a regular practice in later stages of development. All of this reflects a dynamic, recursive, and user-involved process. The approach seems to work; two-thirds of design firms indicate an innovation commercialization rate of over 60%; the average cycle time from project start to production is approximately 18 months. Design firms incorporate repeated design and testing to validate insights and inspirations into their standard operating procedures and budgets. The design firms in our study were all adopters of rapid prototyping throughout the process—often to gain additional user insight.
In one of the larger firms working on new hospital furniture (lounge chairs designed for cancer and dialysis treatment), a design team member was actually a user, going for weekly treatments. The team member was able to use and test new versions of the chair throughout treatment—providing real-time, real-world insight from near real-time prototype modifications. Without this fast-acting loop, many important features of the product would not have been realized. Advances in technology enable complex prototypes to be quickly and inexpensively developed and tested. The most efficient design firms couple internal resources with external subcontractors to advance projects forward at high speed. R&D managers should consider integrating these tools and services into their development processes to be first to market.
Lesson 5: Implement milestone-structured processes with space for self-governance.
Design firms live or die by their ability to execute on innovation opportunities. In addition, since nearly all firms are paid on services rendered (rather than, for example, a percentage of revenues created), design firms need to work fast and on multiple projects at the same time. Although corporate R&D departments tend to rely on the rigorous gated processes widely touted as the route to effective, timely innovation (see, for example, McGrath 2004 and Cooper 2005), such processes are rare in design firms. Only 9% of the firms we surveyed used the same, structured development process for each project.
A large majority of the firms surveyed (77%) indicated that they have developed their own innovation frameworks. These frameworks tend to have “fuzzy phases” with recommended practices within each phase, rather than defined stages and gates. They are largely considered guideposts for teams, not rigid checklists. In fact, teams are generally empowered and encouraged to adopt or adapt recommended practices to suit their work. For example, in one firm’s initial “context phase,” there are recommended practices for defining design criteria, understanding the use context and user needs, mapping user experience, identifying the technology path and systems architecture, and developing early conceptual designs. The deliverable at this phase is simply a clear understanding of users, concept opportunities, and enabling technologies, which may be represented as a set of visual aids and design statements. The next phase might be concept creation with rough prototyping, user testing, and business modeling. One of the deliverables at this phase might be a constructed design language to drive the form, appearance, functionality, and delivery mechanism of the product or service. The team provides a set of prototypes expressing that design language for users and the client for internal peer review.
Governance in this kind of process is entirely different from the typical phased or gated development process. Team self governance is the rule. According to the head of innovation at one large firm:
Implementing innovation processes and methods requires balance and judgment. You need to have a high-level framework that guides how innovation will progress and you need to be able to adapt the approach. Flexible teams are fast teams. Empowered teams figure out new ways to innovate and develop tools. Overly constrained teams fall into process mode. They think about check boxes, phase deliverables, and identified methods that may not be appropriate. You can’t be too prescriptive and you can’t be too loose. The balance is critical. We have seen great success by having a high-level understanding of a framework for development that is combined with an openness to allow teams to customize the exact approach.
This flexibility of structure should not be mistaken for a lack of discipline. The discipline simply comes from a different source. The team meetings we observed were collaborative but challenging, often well past the point where engineering teams in mature corporations might have said, “we know enough; let’s move on.”
This approach was dramatically revealed during one of our interview sessions when the interviewee, the president of one of the largest design firms in the industry, had to end our discussion early because a client team was meeting to discuss user insights from the field. His role, we discovered, was as a member of that team, a discussant and participant working under the guidance of another team leader. Throughout our research, we en- countered design firm executives stepping out of their official roles to engage in teamwork as peers. This practice, the executives say, keeps them fresh and aligned to the challenges and excitement of client work, as well as giving them opportunities to interact with staff outside of performance reviews.
Corporate procedures and governance are designed to weed out unpromising concepts as well as to control cost and project cycle time. All too often, these controls are expressed via complex stage gates and project management routines. These procedures become a primary driver in development, as teams work to the checklists and time requirements for gate approvals by senior executives. Our study of design firms suggests that corporate R&D managers should reduce the influence of structured processes. Instead, consider making the needs of the project the driver of specific milestones and information requirements. Allow the project team to operate primarily in self-governance, reporting results to senior management. Design firms show that this approach, balancing flexibility and discipline, nurtures deeper innovation.
Challenges and Opportunities for the R&D Executive
The innovation practices of the design firms we studied present both challenges and opportunities for the R&D manager seeking to inject spark into the innovation engine of his or her organization. These may be expressed as a series of questions:
1.Insist on user-centered design. How much time does the R&D team invest in trying to understand the user experience at a deep level? How can we foster greater in-market learning for engineers and R&D scientists?
A design firm leader would organize team visits to both users and sellers as part of the new product development process. A simple training program on how to find unarticulated as well as apparent needs through observing users and performing depth interviews could be money well spent. Selectively sending engineers out with sales representatives on sales calls or visits to channel partners can also create insight into how to make a product more appealing.
2.Encourage a dual design focus. How can we foster a duality in design approach that gets teams to think at the overall systems level and then on the details of specific subsystems features and functions?
The total user need includes both a system-level solution and a detail-oriented focus. Understanding the total user need means recognizing both the system-level requirements and the business model for satisfying that need. For example, customers might need new services or accessories in addition to a new version of a core product. Innovation teams need to be given the freedom to consider such design solutions for these needs and make the business case for them. Once an innovation team is empowered to see the big picture, it can zero in on details such as defining scalable product line architectures, mapping interfaces, developing conceptual design, and performing cost engineering on those concepts.
3.Create hyperfunctional teams and support them with communities of practice. How can we encourage individual team members to work beyond and share knowledge across their formal disciplines? How should we define communities of practice in our company and help them to transcend the barriers between groups in the corporation? The experience of the design firms shows a strong preference for small teams comprised of hyperfunctional, multitasking individuals. Mechanical engineers engage in user research rather than reading someone else’s report. Brand marketing professionals work on higher-level design. Industrial designers are asked to model costs to get a sense of the pragmatic as well as the attractive in their designs.
Executives regularly place themselves as members of project teams, as opposed to intervening only during major design reviews. To further encourage collaboration and break down silos between project teams, the larger design firms have created and supported communities of practice around pivotal issues cutting across project teams. Sometimes Increasingly, these communities function as the primary organizational home for participants. The firms actively manage communities of practice, seeing them as high-value vehicles for continued learning and knowledge sharing within the organization.
Such a lateral, nonhierarchical culture may be hard to replicate in mature organizations with formalized engineering and market research departments and subgroups. However, we have seen R&D executives in a number of large corporations initiate communities of practice within
their organizations as “interest groups” or “working groups,” which then became the basis of socialization and a context for sharing best practices.
4.Create a fast, agile development process. Do we have the structure and tools in place to rapidly cycle, test, and receive feedback? Are we taking too much time to develop “perfect specifications” and nearly finished products and putting them out to test market only to find that these near-finished products are widely off base? How can we get faster?
Design firms are especially agile in developing understanding of users, creating prototypes rapidly, and testing these with users along the path to market-ready products or services. As one of the design leaders in our study said, “No product is perfect; companies waste too much time trying to achieve the perfect solution before getting to market. The only way to really improve a first generation product is to learn from customers who have paid for something and want to see it improved. Use these insights to quickly ready the next generation.” The design firms in our study used any and all tools available to cycle rapidly through design iterations.
Teams were empowered to make decisions. In some cases, this meant going outside the organization to contract with smaller, faster-acting suppliers. Tool selection was also a team decision. In many applications, very affordable prototyping tools can accelerate a team’s productivity. In mature R&D organizations, releasing an R&D team from centralized tooling departments, internal suppliers, and pilot production facilities can unleash a barrage of political noise—but such flexibility might be essential for more radical innovations to succeed in mature corporations.
5.Find the balance between creativity and discipline.Does the structure of the development process foster innovation or inhibit it? Should we reduce the heaviness of our decision gates and put greater emphasis on team self-governance? Can we trust teams to do what makes sense and measure them on mile-stone achievements as opposed to telling them what to do and when to do it on a fixed cycle?
Design firms rely on simple, light-handed activity management processes. This style of governance accelerates each part of the process—making it far faster than if a team had to wait for all design firm executives to sit in a review meeting before the next phase of work could continue. Instead, review points are seen as “fuzzy gates” managed by the teams themselves, with invitees selected as deemed appropriate for given milestones.
These review points were also moments to create alignments with various stakeholders in the client organizations. By contrast, the consensus among design firm leaders was that many of their corporate clients were saddled with cumbersome phased-review processes that tended to kill the most innovative new product or service concepts.
This perspective drove the design firms’ development processes, with their overlapping phases driven by distinct project milestones rather than the corporate process. For the R&D manager, we recommend implementing a development process for breakthrough innovation that operates outside of the regular gated corporate development process. Establish key project milestones and eliminate heavily paper-based reviews. Instead, rely on the progress of the project and tea—not on deliverables tied to established corporate metrics. The result will be a project that moves more quickly to market and delivers more performance within the budget. Once the products of that innovation effort are launched in the market and improved from that experience, the project can be channeled back into standard corporate-gated governance for incremental evolution.
All corporations—regardless of industry or country of origin—must innovate or step aside. The practices of design firms, believed by many to be the most innovative of new product and service development organizations, offer a set of best practices for fostering continuous innovation. These practices touch all aspects of innovation and R&D. What is needed is a shift toward a more fluid and flexible approach driven by empowered employees who are free to seek and explore new avenues to innovation.
True innovation is an omnipresent goal for R&D-driven organizations. Often this quest is diluted by the need to improve or sustain current technology and products to the detriment of next-generation services or products. The practices of design firms suggest ways to transform the R&D culture from a highly structured 20th-century paradigm to a more creative, dynamic engine of innovation. This transformation is difficult because it requires the R&D executive to unlearn some of the rules that his or her predecessors offered as best practices. Agile development? Communities of practice? Self-governance with consensually established milestones? While these ideas are nontraditional, leaders of high-performance R&D organizations are increasingly viewing these as best practices for achieving distinctive results.
Where should the R&D manager start? The best approach might be a trial. Select a growth opportunity; empower a small team to set its direction and make key decisions regarding user research, design, and even supplies. Give the team an experienced manager to help them avoid the potholes in the corporation, but staff it with fresh talent. Have team members share their market learning and technology breakthroughs via new communities of practice open to others in the corporation. Infuse the organization with new thinking, put it into practice, and champion the results.
Source: Meyer, M.H., and Marion, T.J. (2010). “Innovating for Effectiveness: Lessons from Design Firms.” Research-Technology Management, Vol. 53, No. 4 (September-October), pp. 21-28.
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