Design Innovation – Are You Customer and Partner Referral Worthy?

Lunch topic today is client prep work while nibbling on a home-made holiday eggroll from my nail salon and a gourmet hot cocoa with marshmallows from my real estate agent looking for January referrals. An unlikely (yet yummy) combination and it reminds me that my clients are super creative and willing to go the extra mile to acknowledge the business received by their best clients.

Is your business referral worthy? Are you as an executive referral worthy? Does your team (and I mean not only sales reps, but IT guy, receptionist, and shipping clerks alike) bring referrals to the business?

Design Innovation is not just about your product road map – it is about connecting your entire organization with your customers in a circular way. 20% of your clients are the ones bringing you the most business? I would assert you could design creative ways to expand this percentage, reduce your cost of customer acquisition and create deeper and more meaningful relationships with your clients and your partners.

January is the month of Design Innovation workshops. Not merely a marketing, tech or executive’s game, plugin your entire organization and their communities to discover innovative ideas that can support growth in the business. Maybe there is a strong non-profit service element within your employees. Are you recognizing them for that? What if you gave away a slice of your business to your employees non-profit in such a way that you were able to connect with the non-profit, understand how they use your product/service, and then do a joint marketing campaign or event to bring awareness to both organizations?

Design-Driven Innovation has become a buzz phrase recently. Usually led by only one of the two (marketing or technology), it is the delicious combination of both critical thinking groups in conversation with your current and future customers that will spark the next process, product or service change that will allow your business to forge ahead of your competition.

Bringing in people OUTSIDE your company is also a must. Status Quo will simply move the needle ever so slightly. If you want to really be the leader in your market, you must embrace the entire market.

Which brings me back to the question on the table, ‘Are you customer and partner referral worthy?’ Of course, you could ask. Some other ways to answer the question: 1) online reviews 2) track the source of your business 3) survey your employees and ask them to describe what your business does and give a prize for referrals over a 30-day period 4) give a referral to each of your partners, and track whether or not they return the favor.

Market Driven Innovation

You may own or know someone that owns an iPod, who searches the internet for everything from shoes to Lady Gaga, or get your kicks by driving by the gas pump in your electric car. Ever wonder how companies like Apple, Google and Nissan are so far ahead of the competition? It can be summed up in one word, “Innovation”. These companies create such wonderful products and services and seem to be reading your mind to give you exactly what you’re looking for. They also communicate to you on a personal level and design their products to be stylistic and easy to use. Companies of yesteryear are dropping off the wayside and design driven innovation is transforming the traditional approach to business.

Consumers in today’s market have more buying choices then in the past. People are becoming more attracted to the inner beauty, design and the emotional responses of products and less of the mass produced products. Innovative companies have a handle on this and are paving the path for a more “humanistic” approach rather then the assembly line, “build it and they will come” past. Successful companies today understand their customers, whereas in the past, price, accessibility and limited options swayed customers of traditional companies to adopt themselves to a product or service. Apple has been demonstrating innovation for years with the Mac and iPod as great examples. Innovative companies of today adopt themselves to their customers with a human centered approach.

A good idea is the foundation of a problem however to be successful in today’s market, the idea needs to be innovative. Innovation has been defined as “a good idea executed well” (wikipedia). The phrase “Build it and they will come” doesn’t work anymore. In today’s market, branding, advertising, marketing, product design and positioning all need to come together and create a great experience and a connection to consumers. The Walt Disney Company is a great example of a “good idea executed well”. The experiences they create communicate to a wide range of people and leave a lasting memory for the consumer.

Experimentation is risky; energy, money and time are all on the line. The “safe” approach is to do what has worked in the past. Well, if you follow the safe approach, you are taking the chance of the newest and coolest product or service beating you out of the market and connecting to people in a way never thought possible. Experimentation allows for new possibilities, opens the door for new directions and is always willing to propose new solutions. Some of the most innovative products and services are a result of experimenting. Top companies like Google and 3M experiment everyday to create innovative ideas. They also encourage their staff to spend up to 20% of their time on experimenting. Experimentation is seen in places such as scientists experimenting to find new cures for medical ailments, engineers experimenting to create safer buildings and designers experimenting to create beautiful artwork. Business also has its fair share of problems and experimentation is typically the solution to these problems.

Design Thinking: What is and what could be. What is: successful established businesses world-wide have been riding the wave of their product or service and incrementally grown to stay competitive. They simply try to sell their customers the latest range of products and services. This has worked in the past, however companies with a “design thinking” approach are innovating the market tremendously and reaping success and financial profits. What could be: a “design thinking” approach to a product or service would entail a through investigation based on human interactions which would be centered from a consumer’s perspective. Design thinking goes deep into the who, why, what and where and employs various methods such as user observation, brain storming, prototyping, story telling and scenario building. This thought process sets a solid foundation to create innovative solutions.

The traditional approach to solving problems is to look at specific experiences of one or two past companies. This practice is becoming similar to a thrift store where concepts are merely handed down from one company to another. The problem is that past solutions were tailored for a previous need from a previous era. Many large companies have failed due to this practice, for example, Enron. The alternative is designing a solution. Designing a solution is essentially tailoring your decisions to the uniqueness of the challenge at hand. New options will be imagined and designed in a way entirely custom to your business needs. A traditional business is taught to operate in the decision making mode, however business colleges and universities are now engraving the design based solutions into the typical MBA curriculum. This is leading to more successful companies designing innovative solutions.

The cubicle workspace of traditional business is cutting off innovation at the heart. Traditional businesses typically place their mid level employees in cubicles or partioned work spaces. When a topic is in need of discussion, a meeting is typically called in a different part of the office. This creates numerous distractions throughout the day and usually demands your attention to be shifted from one project to another while “meeting”. Open the doors of today’s innovative companies and you will find a work environment that encourages collaboration and “design thinking” by creating open and interchangeable workspaces. This allows teams to quickly pull together at one another’s desk and go over a concept rather then calling another meeting. Open space floor plans without walls open up more then just the space; they open up the mind and create a place where people work off of each others energy. They also bring the staff together to create a collective “family” atmosphere.

Traditionally, business executives are trained to structure the company with a set of defined objectives. For example, focusing on profits, controlling the market, defining roles within the organization, determining boundaries and overall company culture. In most cases, the culture of traditional companies are not very open minded and hold strongly to the structure set forth by its predecessors. Typically all the decisions come from the upper management without any input from the core population of the company. This in turn crushes the feeling of everyone working together towards a common goal. Design culture promotes a feeling of over all connectedness within a company by tearing down the traditional walls and opening the doors to innovation. Elements to a design culture focus on customers instead of costs, project based roles instead of role orientated, taking risks and creating collaborative environments. If all the employees within a company feel there are working together towards a common goal then the stage has been set for a design driven innovative company.

Staying fresh and adaptive in today’s economy means being innovative in business and in the way we approach problems. Design driven innovation is the interlocking piece between people and their needs. In times of change we need new alternatives and new ideas. The default has been to make the best choice from the available alternatives. Design driven innovation helps us to explore new solutions and new alternatives that haven’t existed before.