Why is human-centered, cross-functional innovation design so challenging?

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The Craft A right arrow.

Many business leaders and project owners, including service designers and product developers, are taking on complex innovation challenges that cut across internal silos and customer touch points. Why is this work so challenging? What contributes to the challenges we so often experience of mismatched expectations, unmet goals, blown budgets, and wasted time?

This article explores six (of many!) factors that contribute to the challenges of human-centered design with cross-functional teams, and outlines the implications for the practice of innovation design in this context.

Innovation is a discipline not a directive

We must develop the craft of innovation design through practice, practice, and more practice.

12 skills on the The Moment’s Innovation Designer Capability Map (take a closer look here!)

There is no shortcut to learning how to be insight-driven, to structure work around ambiguous problems and outcomes, to iterate through cycles of continuous testing and refinement, and to engage others effectively along this bumpy ride.

Teams must be equipped with tools and a structured approach to capability development. Leaders must better understand where their expertise becomes a barrier rather than an enabler of innovation efforts. Innovation designers will need runway and resources to focus on both delivery and on-going learning.

The past no longer predicts the future

We must be insight-driven rather than solution-driven.

Context used to change slowly, so needs and solutions were predictable. Nowadays, not so much!

Decisions are traditionally made by senior people with lots of experience. This worked very well in a context where outcomes were predictable based on past experience. But the reality today is that the market and technology context is changing so quickly that past patterns no longer give insight into future results.

The key skill for any organization, or team, to acquire is the ability to drive continuous leaning so that decisions can be made based on real insights, and not on assumptions.

We can’t control everything we’re designing for

We must design for systems of interconnected touchpoints over diverse channels in a context of rapid change.

Rough (very rough!) timeline of the evolution of the complexity of the design context.

Historically, designers have focused on narrowly framed applications — text, images, brands, experiences. Over time, these media have layered upon each other so that we must now consider multiple dimensions of an experience across a system of channels and media — many of which we can’t directly control due to technology or structural constraints. Additionally, the range of challenges we’re tackling exist at different levels— from strategy to stakeholdering to service system mapping to user experience and beyond.

Organizations must develop and manage a portfolio of innovation initiatives that strike the right balance between near-term and longer-term benefit. Prioritizing and resourcing the right initiatives at the right time (and not just implementing pet projects or assumption-based solutions) is the magic of this strategic practice.

We have to satisfy clashing needs and mindsets

We must design to satisfy the diverse needs of our customers, our colleagues and executive leadership, our shareholders (and ourselves!)

We’re all using this framework, but are we really able to satisfy these diverse needs?

The reality is that often what’s best for the customer doesn’t neatly align with what’s best for the business. And what’s best for the customer, or the business, can’t always be feasibly implemented. Designers are often brilliant at leveraging tools and devising solutions that enhance the experience of the end-user — focusing on desirability. Business stakeholders are accountable for near-medium term profit, and technology stakeholders are managing an already full backlog with overstretched resources.

Innovation teams need to engage diverse stakeholders and frame opportunities and decisions in terms that resonate with their needs directly. We can’t just be the voice of the customer, we must make solutions practical and profitable.

We must create downstream impact and value (not just great ideas)

We must translate insights and concepts into measurable in-market value.

The Moment’s Innovation Project Framework.

It is important but insufficient to come up with inspiring ideas, journey maps, blueprints, and insight reports. Innovation design’s value is in the downstream impact to the organization’s customers and business. To maintain the credibility of peers and executive sponsors (and customers), innovation design teams must operate across the full spectrum of the process from insights through to ideation, prototyping and implementation.

Many diverse skills must be integrated artfully along the way, from research to facilitation, to visual design, to business design, and into implementation. Innovation design team leaders must find creative ways of ensuring that their teams have the right talent to cover this breadth of capabilities. This need to find and retain unicorn and specialist designers with sufficient real project experience is one of the biggest current challenges for team leaders.

We must seek purpose to drive meaning into our work, services, and brand

We must nurture the strategic alignment of teams, customers and brands to a purpose greater than themselves.

Triple bottom line accounting framework. We can dream, right?

It is vital that innovation design drives value to the business. But as innovation is an on-going journey and not an end-state, the backlog never ends. In this context, team members can become fatigued by the churn and lose their energy and inspiration when stuck on the hamster wheel of never ending projects.

To maintain energy behind innovation work, it is essential that teams feel motivated by a sense of purpose and personal meaning. This could be to create a more humane work environment, to create services that work better for people, to help their communities and families thrive. The impact of this authentic connection to the work radiates out and is felt by customer and colleagues — driving business and brand value while leading to increased talent retention and project success.

How have these challenges shown up in your organization?

These challenges define the working context of our time, and organizations must develop the innovation design capability to work effectively and thrive in this context.

How have these challenges shown up for you?
What else has shown up?
What should we do about it?

Please share comments with us on twitter or via email to help us tackle the challenge of human-centered, cross-functional innovation design — we’d love to hear from you.