Beyond the Build


How to Innovate Your Organization Through Design

Recently, one of our long-term client relationships sponsored a forum in New York City on innovation of company culture through design. While I wasn’t able to attend, I did get my hands on some great notes from a friend.

Design of function has evolved to be much more in the center of technology, business and people. Innovation now flows from all these points of view and enables design to flourish in a real way. With this in mind, these guidelines for action should drive design:


Differentiate: Set yourself apart from your competitors.

Simplify: Offer efficiencies and help the supply chain support the customer.

Innovate: Don’t simply be an observer. Set imperatives around insights and you will create a cycle for new solutions, moving from abstract to concrete. People will come along with you.

As a designer of the function, your focus is different. Engineers start with technology. Business minds and venture capitalists start with the money side—profits. Design starts with the people side and then moves into thoughts of technology and profit. As a function and process designer, you are always thinking about what people want as your key driver, or at least you should be.

Hire Renaissance employees who can see the big picture
There are three categories of knowledge bases that will categorize your team: “Silo-ed,” “T-shaped” and “Pie shaped.”

Silo-ed is the traditional type of employee. They have highly specialized expertise, which used to be desirable, but is now becoming less acceptable.

T-shaped employees have deep expertise in one area, but are collaborative.

Pie shaped team members have diverse combinations of experience like engineering + business or art + finance. They are quickly becoming the most desirable hires.

In my opinion, we should look for people who have broad perspectives, teamwork capabilities and maintain a balance of innovation and creativity. For example, a team should have financial modelers from the inception, showing the monetary impact of the design in addition to the creative side. Employees who have a passion for change and the ability to work with others are huge assets and can capture the “collective IQ.” Interdisciplinary collaboration yields real innovation—Fight “Silos!”

Conquer the fear of failure
If team members come from the business perspective that “they do not wish to look stupid,” they will narrow decisions, dooming them from the start. Research shows that people fall into 2 kinds of intelligence:

Entity Theory: Every encounter you have is a measure of IQ. One works hard not to look stupid.

Development Theory: One seeks out those challenges as a way to learn and the values it bring.

How can we encourage risk taking while balancing finances? There’s a need to accept failure as a part of change. Position the innovation as a “learning launch” with management. It is an experiment that we expect to learn from and change. This gives freedom, helps prevent failure from capital “F” emphasis to a small “f” acceptance and can yield real successes.

Round Up
Maybe we all should be thinking more about what we can do to make design innovations in the organization and our people more innovative?

*Panel discussion moderated by Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future with Bill Moggridge, 2009 Lifetime Achievement National Design Award Winner, co-founder of IDEO, Sam Lucente, Vice President of Design, Hewlett-Packard Company and Jeanne Liedtka, Professor, University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business

Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.