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How to get the most out of innovation workshops

It takes a lot more than a wall of post-its to find a useful idea that is worth pursuing, let alone bring it to the market.

It’s easy to come up with a bunch of loose ideas if your skin is not in the game, and your job stops at just finding an idea. Workshops mostly recycle old ideas that are still around, or they generate spontaneous ideas that do not stand up to a sober reality check. Innovation workshops that are run by innovation newcomers who are smart at running workshops rarely generate really useful new ideas. Innovation is not a thing that you can purchase, nor is it a service that you can hire from outside. True innovation is a combination of many factors such as mindset, culture, processes, and timing.

The most successful innovative ideas are born out of cross-border and cross-sector team collaboration, and they take time to be sufficiently developed.

The workshop craze also gives you the idea that finding the right idea is the most important component of innovation. Well – it is not. Finding an idea only counts for about 30% of the success of innovation. Much more important is timing and the right team. And team doesn’t mean only your internal team. Think open innovation, modern day problems, technologies, markets that become ever more complex, and it is impossible for companies to have an expertise in all these fields.
Innovation is not a single event, it happens across many fields of expertise, in cross-team co-operations. Collaboration is a key success factor these days.

So, don’t ask a consulting agency to do the innovation for you.

Instead, ask them if they have experience in collaboration in long-term relationships with people and teams inside companies, if they have experience with multidisciplinary teams, and if they brought ideas (successfully) to the market. See if they have experience in trying to understand markets. Perhaps most important, do they have experience in understanding what users and customers desire. Embed innovation in your company as a culture and an attitude that is always present, and involve everybody in the company in innovation-thinking. Embrace open innovation and collaboration with other companies.
There is nothing wrong with organising a workshop, as long as you do not consider it as a one-time event that will bring you that golden idea.

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User satisfaction as a priority

User satisfaction as a priority

To be clear, functionality is very important, and a good designer should be absolutely obsessed about optimizing it. However, products do not just have to do their job. They may have to do their job – no matter what. Extreme exposure to harsh environments of dust, rain, salt, vibrations, sun or ice requires a very different design approach than a product for use in ambient climate conditions.
Whether a solution is a product or a service or a software interface – or a combination thereof – a good solution always supports the natural flow of existing processes, like they were organic parts thereof.
Naturally, aesthetics are a very important part of good solutions. Good solutions create good user experiences and therefore have to support the user’s satisfaction – also visually. Here again, a good solution is a solution that upgrades the user in his environment and that enhances a user’s experience, including his interactions with others, and the process flow he is part of. Good solutions have to enhance the experience of a user in a given process, and the best solutions are like an organic part of an intuitive process flow of a user, like they were a natural part of life.

Car of the future reevaluated

Take another example of a design challenge that has enormous relevance for the future: the design of a self-driving car’s interior. At the moment, car manufacturers are thinking of a self-driving car as a conventional car that can also drive without requiring the permanent attention of the driver. The main job of a conventional car is to give the driver driving pleasure while offering comfort to the passengers. To date, the ability of a car to accelerate powerfully is seen as a key attribute of driving pleasure. Acceleration power is therefore also very strongly correlated with the price of a car and hence with the margin that car manufacturers generate on selling cars. One could therefore say that the factual main job-to-be-done is to give the driver the illusion of controlled superpowers, to enable him/her to move fast and forcefully over longer distances.
If you think of an advanced, truly autonomous, self-driving car as a living space during which you spend the time needed to get from point A to point B, acceleration power is a factor that is rather not wished. Instead, a self-driven car should enable you to do all kinds of things, except enjoying the activity of driving itself, as you are not the driver anymore. The jobs-to-be-done of a self-driving car are substantially different from a conventional car: they include the prevention of car sickness, the enablement of work, entertainment, relaxation, and video communication – just to name a few. Perhaps you want to be able to stand, walk, enjoy a hot meal, or exercise. You certainly want to be able to sit, lie, and sleep. You want to give your car simple instructions such as: “Leave the highway for the next restaurant”, or: “Wake me up 10 minutes before arrival.”

User needs determine design solutions

It is crucial for a designer to totally re-think the design requirements around a very new future user experience. It is not unreasonable to expect that newcomers to the car industry could shake it up like the iPhone shook up the traditional mobile phone industry. The key reason is simply that relevant new functionalities could be so numerous that the classic core competency of car manufacturers of enabling comfortable or dynamic driving will only play a minor role in future mobility. The enablement of actually spending quality-time in a car by doing all sorts of things will be the main value driver of the car industry of the future. This will be made possible by a substantial increase in a car’s functionality, i.e. the jobs-to-be-done of a car that is self-driven versus driver-driven will increase significantly, and the enhanced functionality will be a major differentiator for car manufacturers.
Designers should always be ready for deeply transformational design solutions that reach far beyond incremental product renewals.
Needless to say, but the client reality is often different and by far less transformational, as certain best practices, brand identities, and sticky user habits suggest that gradual product evolutions are businesswise less risky than rapid revolutions. However, the expected rise of the autonomous car industry is an example of dramatic shifts in user experience, and hence the car industry is very likely to face unconventional competition from newcomers – implying that larger design steps are needed to accommodate the new needs of the user.

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A design agency as a partner for transformational innovation

Impact of innovation

The wealth creation that is brought to society by transformational innovation is often misunderstood by that society itself, as transformational innovation typically starts with disruption – which mostly translates into initial job losses. These days, the broad adaptation and application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in every day’s life is as disputed as formerly the introduction of the spinning or harvesting machine. People understand that these inventions will initially bring about major job losses, and it is psychologically difficult for most people to feel comfortable with permanently changing rules and job uncertainty. In my perception, only a minority of people embraces innovation, disruption, and – to some extent – the consequential uncertainty that comes with what the future may bring.

History vs today

To put things into historical perspective, 500 years ago, 73% of the French population worked in the agricultural sector – compared to less than 3% nowadays. The situation is comparable in other European countries. Rapid job losses in the sector started after 1800, when the emerging industrialization gained traction. In essence, 70% of total employment had to look for another source of income over the centuries. Or to put differently: 70% of the French working people were able to contribute wealth to society beyond feeding that society, which is how carpenters and builders and gardeners and tailors emerged who made their craftsmanship more available and affordable for broader parts of society. As such, much wider parts of society got access to products and services that were formerly not available to them.
Moving fast-forward to today, the next big productivity-enhancing quantum leap for society will be the combination of AI with machines that have either not existed on an industrial scale yet or that still required significant human skills and craftsmanship to get to the desired result.
As soon as the technology can demonstrate that it is superior to human intervention, the doors are open for growth investments on a giga-scale. Whether we talk about self-driving vehicles, industrial production machines, ironing machines, planning and harvesting machines, pick-and-place, or loading and unloading machines, they will all have one factor in common: classical human transactional skills can be done better and more reliably by an AI-run machine. Industries that are already currently in full swing of this disruption are the financial service sector and the retail sector.

Role of design agencies

It is crucial for cutting-edge design agencies such as Achilles Design to play a role in this transformation. However, practically speaking, it is nearly impossible to offer all required innovation services from in-house resources an on top-notch professional standards to clients. There is no design agency that has professionals in-house that cover the whole spectrum of expertise that is required for contemporary high-tech design solutions. By contrast, customers are typically unable or unwilling to co-ordinate the project management for such complex innovation projects, which means that design agencies are naturally required to source, screen, and select, but also to manage the co-operation between the different service providers in order to bring a design project to a successful end. In other words, modern design agencies are increasingly one-stop shops even for very complex innovation projects. At Achilles Design, we took the very conscious decision to be a general contractor and project manager for demanding innovation challenges. We systematically look for relevant business partners who have deep expertise in domains that will play an increasingly important role in the future, whether this is with respect to AR/VR, AI and machine learning, PCB design, data science, App development, or market research – to name just a few. The essential bottom-line is that our clients get their innovation projects delivered, no matter what.
In other words, design agencies that want to play a role in tomorrow’s transformational impact-innovation have to be able to master quite demanding managerial tasks that reach far beyond the design discipline that designers once studied at university. Modern design agencies need in-house business management and project management skills, and – depending on how deep a design agency engages with its expert business partners – it is increasingly important to have financial and M&A expertise in-house as well.
At Achilles Design, we have positioned ourselves exactly along these lines to ensure that customers will get what they need: innovation that makes a difference to their future.

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