4 big innovation questions

Member News published by Plextek, under Business Development, Innovation / Incubation, Product Design, Strategy

By Alan Cucknell, Head of Ignite Exponential and Martin Miller, Exponential Design Leader at Ignite Exponential - Plextek's innovation unit. This article was been adapted from the question and answer discussion that followed our July 1st 2020 webinar “Innovating in Scarcity and Uncertainty” hosted by Cambridge Wireless.

What is the future of product design/development (in the post-COVID19 reality)?  

Alan: Firstly I’m not sure whether there will be a “post-COVID reality” as even if we succeed in developing a vaccine we’ll be living with the impact of the unprecedented changes we’ve seen this year for quite some time, perhaps forever in some form.

With that in mind, perhaps the main characteristic of a "post-COVID19 reality” is a much greater level of scarcity and uncertainty than we’re used to. And unlike recessions in the early 1990s, early 2000’s or 2009/10 this is about much more than the availability of money. This disruption has fundamentally changed the access customers have to some markets and the availability of goods.  So this places much greater emphasis on product development sitting within the framework of versatile customer experience and flexible business model. One that first ensures that a solution is available and affordable – and only then the specifics of the product.  And one that allows the business to pivot between locked down and open markets, to react to local and national changes.

Martin: I also think that a consequence of all this uncertainty will be that the difference between the needs of customers at the extremes is likely to grow – with greater differences between the needs of different demographics, cultures, and nationalities in the future compared to 2019.  For product developers, this means being laser focussed on your target customer, their environment, their challenges or problems, and their needs.  This is one of the reasons we like the 4A’s framework we presented in the webinar.

What are your top tips to help businesses use design to identify genuine market opportunities?   

Alan: Cambridge brims with technology but one thing that has been underrepresented and a reason we created Ignite Exponential, is design. Not just design in the engineering sense, but Design Thinking – so we like this question!

First I’d say that you’ve got to fall in love with the problem, not any technology or capability. Talking to customers first-hand, living a day in their life really helps.  You’ve got to be able to empathise with their environment, their challenges. Don’t just read someone else’s market report – build an understanding of what success could look like before you consider solutions. We find when you start asking and investigating the problem in this way, the solutions will find you. All too often we see teams with a new technology trying to fit it to the first problem they find. Don’t be solution focussed….focus on the problem.

I think you also have to separate the conventional industry orthodoxies (how everyone knows how it’s done in your sector…) from the problem you are trying to solve.  Otherwise, the assumptions from the past about what must be true – whether that’s about the type of service or level of quality or something else, will block you from seeing new opportunities. That’s one of the reasons we intentionally work across industries. We find that a big part of our work is challenging these limiting assumptions to spot new market opportunities.

Martin: The right designers for this sort of work tend to have a more open, challenging view of “what’s possible”, but they also know how to get really specific to work around or address the objections that are inherent when you try to do something different.

From an industrial design point of view, the customer is key, so a common question that we are asked is “why can we come up with these great technological advances but we can’t sell them?” You need to make sure that its right for the customer so the customer can work with it, look at the human factors of what you’ve created. You can make a product that does something amazing but if no one can use it then no one is going to buy it!

What are the attitudes and resources needed to enable design to support successful innovation?  

Martin: Now more so than ever, if you want to ignite a passion inside a team you need to get out there and see the world. The problem with industrial designers is the fact that we are meant to be creating the future and creating cool new products that exist in cool new areas… and we live in a box (in our studios). But in reality, we thrive when we are out there taking the world in and talking to other companies. Don’t be afraid of reaching out to other companies and taking part in learning exchanges, because other companies, be it not your direct competitor will actually talk to you and help you out. We’re now in that age where everybody wants to help everybody to ensure that economies keep going, so get out there and understand the new world.

Alan: We can’t emphasize our belief about Purpose enough; working with your teams to make sure that you have a common Purpose is essential. If culture eats strategy for breakfast (as Peter Drucker famously said), then a common Purpose eats culture for breakfast. You’ve got to make sure that you’re aligned on that Purpose otherwise you’re pulling in different directions.

Secondly, we should define a team broadly; we think some of the best innovation teams are built on connections, their connections to other people, their connections to other industries. It’s about being open, not about being closed. So, it’s critical to adopt a mindset that the ‘brightest minds’ are probably not in your organisation. They could be in other companies, or they might be in other industries entirely. How do you develop a team with that mindset of humility to be able to find other ways to reach their Purpose by reaching out and connecting? So, adopt an open mindset in how you frame your team and how you’re trying to learn – rather than a mindset that you have all of the answers or that you have to address it all yourself.

What is the first step I need to take to start innovating?     

Alan: Firstly, don’t “just do it” as NIKE would say.  You’ve got to start off understanding why you want to innovate – what’s your Purpose as we discussed earlier.  And at the highest level what outcome you really want to drive – and be honest with yourself because there are many routes to success, but not knowing what you want to achieve is the surest way to fail.

Once you’re clear on WHY it’s time to fall in love with the problem you’re going to address. Initially, prioritize those time and financial investments that will allow you to learn quickly about your potential customers, their problems, and to understand what success would look like for them.

And in all these steps, adopt an openness mindset. Connect with people you don’t know. Look outside your industry. Try new technical disciplines to look at the problems from different perspectives…

Martin: …and bring on good designers which is the surest way to bring your ideas to life and allow you to test, test, test your way to better learning, and eventually succeed.

Of course, if you’re looking to start innovating or to take your game up a level please get in touch with us – that’s what we do! And a final thought, have patience… it takes time but don’t let that stop you from aiming BIG!

For more information or to discuss anything mentioned in this Q&A further, please contact Alan at alan.cucknell@igniteexponential or Martin at martin.miller@igniteexponential.com

For any general enquiries please email hello@igniteexponential.com

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