By Ty Hagler
I was recently invited to participate in a very productive ideation session with a global services company to serve as the visual scribe. The experience was certainly rewarding as it was an opportunity to learn from leaders in a completely new industry immersed in a thick vocabulary of shorthand ideas and acronyms. Given my lack of experience in this industry, it was something of a surprise and relief to still be able to make a contribution to the ideation team using principles from design.
As designers, we understand that ideas can be fragile things, easily molded and shaped, combined with other ideas or discarded in a flash. Often, companies invest heavily in the front end of innovation to unearth great customer insights, wrestle to solve the most pressing challenges and create fantastic ideas, only to see those ideas fail to be implemented due to a disconnect somewhere along the way. In truth, large companies have an immune system that is very good at repelling new ideas that could change how the existing business operates. If a great idea is to survive long enough to be adopted, design has several tools to strengthen it to fight the cultural antibodies.
The magic of an ideation session itself rests in the fact that complex problems and ideas are best solved by teams with individuals representing many different areas of the company and its customers. When one person expresses half of an idea to solve a key problem, others filter it, interpret, and then re-express the idea through their unique lens to add richness to the idea. As this ideation process goes forward toward an elegant solution, the team captures complex information in a condensed form – similar in scale to the complexity of information that shapes the company’s stock price.
Unlike the stock price, however, a great idea at this stage has little ability to shape behavior in the company. If it isn’t accurately recorded and incubated, the idea dissolves as easily as the team dispersing to go home for the day. It was at this point where I found my skills as a designer making an impact. As a ‘visual scribe,’ I sought to capture the gestalt of the idea through rough sketches of the core elements of an idea. For some of the more elaborate ideas, it took 2-3 sketches before the team was satisfied that, yes, they fully captured the idea. Later when each team was presenting their work to the room, I was thrilled to see some of them repeatedly reference the sketches as a tool to succinctly express the idea. In some cases, we used creative metaphors to quickly express abstract concepts and their benefits to the user – perhaps sowing the seeds for future advertising campaigns.
As the internal innovation team strategizes how to shape and implement the fruits of this ideation session, a long-observed principle from design will apply. Given the nature of the ideation session, the ideas were presented in a rough format – which invited lively discussion from the room. Similarly, rough concept sketches invite more feedback and engagement from others, creating a broader sense of ownership and buy-in to the idea. By contrast, a tightly detailed photo-realistic rendering of the same concept, while it may be beautiful in execution, appears much more static in nature – something that can only be accepted or rejected.
In the context of change management and the socialization of ideas, design teaches us that the stylistic presentation of an idea can impact the psychology of those cultural antibodies that are predisposed to reject change. First, it is through accurate use of visual tools that the gestalt of the idea can be more quickly communicated, avoiding rejection from an ancillary feature that proves to be a red herring. Second, stylistic choices can have a powerful signaling effect on whether the recipient of the idea is invited to help shape its success or to make a Go/No-Go decision. Implementing innovation within large corporations is certainly a challenging task that involves a high degree of emotional intelligence, to which design tools can improve the chances for success.