Sarah and I were both delighted to be asked to take part in this year’s Spring Forward Festival – a month-long celebration of women in digital culture – and to join the fabulous Ladies that UX Brighton group to speak on a subject close to our hearts: namely culture and innovation. Having, between us, been in the workplace for 55+ years, we’ve both had our fair share of ups and downs, experienced the highs and lows of the workplace, witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly of organisational life.
That’s not to say we don’t love our jobs and the work that we do, but we’d be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that, despite understanding that everyone wants to come to work with an open heart and mind and a desire to give their best, that somehow organisational culture can get in the way!
Similarly, connecting ideas with value creation – what we would define as innovation – can often feel much harder than it ought to. And yet now, more than ever, we need innovative cultures to solve the grand challenges of our time – as well as the little ones!
Culture eats strategy for breakfast (and lunch and dinner) (Or if you’re Sarah breakfast, dinner and tea :-))
The management thinker, Peter Drucker, famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. He was – wisely in our opinion – acknowledging that you can have the best strategy in the world, but if the people in your organisation don’t get it, don’t buy into it, or aren’t given the right tools or feel a sense of ‘psychological safety’, then the chances of successfully delivering on your strategy are pretty slim. Yes, you may deliver some short-term wins, but the mid- to long-term sustainability of your organisation is less robust than it could be.
Living in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, organisations – and economies and societies – are being challenged like never before. What may have made them successful to this point isn’t necessarily going to make them successful in the future. (There are many ex-Fortune 500 companies long dead and buried as evidence of this. Blackberry anyone?!) Lots of research now shows that innovating and responding successfully to external drivers can’t be solved by a few individuals: what is required are diverse teams collaborating, challenging, co-creating and innovating together, to ensure we solve the right problems in the right way.
Building ‘dynamic capability’ is the new competitive advantage
In a world of scarce resources, its people who have infinite ability. Our ability to grow and develop, to adapt and change is quite remarkable. We are great believers in adopting a ‘growth mindset’ – the idea developed by the psychologist Carol Dweck based on her study of school children and human motivation. A growth mindset – as opposed to a fixed mindset – recognises that intelligence and wisdom can be developed, and the latest findings in neuroscience evidences this brain plasticity. Yes, innovation relies on a whole range of factors that many experts have written about (including Professors Joe Tidd and John Bessant who we referenced at the event). But we believe that building the right cultural environment is crucial for building not just great places to work, but environments where diverse sets of people flourish and thrive and, in turn, enable the organisations they work for to flourish and thrive. We believe that investing in an organisation’s culture – as much as its strategy – is essential for creating innovative, adaptive organisations.
Design Thinking as a process for creative problem solving
Design Thinking is a practice that’s gaining much traction as a process for creative problem solving. In many ways it can be described as codifying the innovation process. The Double Diamond, an innovation framework created by the Design Council nearly 20 years ago and used by designers and non-designers alike around the world, helps to embed a human-centred approach to product and service design in organisations. As global design company IDEO describes:
“Design Thinking has a human-centred core. It encourages organisations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. When you sit down to create a solution for a business need, the first question should always be what’s the human need behind it?”
Design Thinking emphasises empathy – if you don’t put yourself in your user’s shoes how will you ever really create something they want and from which they derive value? The Design Thinking process facilitates collaboration and co-creation, encouraging a shared input of insights, expertise and experience. It adopts an approach of experimentation and iteration – prototyping (trying things out), testing and learning. As users and facilitators of Design Thinking, the human-centred approach has great appeal to us both.
Design Thinking as a ‘social technology’
In our practice, Sarah and I have already seen first hand Design Thinking’s ability to foster enhanced collaboration, engagement and productivity. Which is why we were really excited to come across the work of Professor Jeanne Liedtka and her HBR article Why Design Thinking Works.
Liedtka talks about Design Thinking as a ‘social technology’: it encourages people to practice empathy and compassion – to move from ‘I am an expert’ to ‘let’s explore and test our assumptions together’ mindset. It provides a process that creates safety and a sense of ‘moving forward’ even when problems seem big and hairy.
Given the ‘intangible’ nature of culture (we asked people to draw what it meant and we got some fabulous images!) we believe the ‘social technology’ aspects of Design Thinking make it a valuable framework to help drive ‘psychological safety’ both within the project team and across the wider organisation. Following a Design Thinking process, and the principles that underpin it, we can embed a practice – a way of ‘doing things around here’ – that embeds true collaboration and comfort with constructive conflict (because we need challenge and a diversity of perspectives to fuel new ideas). Design Thinking helps teams develops a mindset that sees mistakes and missteps as an opportunity to learn and grow, and promotes a real sense of progress towards a meaningful solution.
We had great fun sharing these thoughts and interacting with those in the room – who equally had terrific insights and experiences to share (thanks to the many sponsors who supported this event). We would love to hear from you to discuss these, or anything people, culture, strategy or innovation related! Please do drop us a line – we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Sam Whittaker, Human Change Agent, Human Change Agency
Sarah, Head of Digital Experience, CIPD
Image: Sarah Corney