Can Innovation be Routinized?

By Aditya Dev Sood

I am told by those who study these things that agriculture came about more or less by accident. Our early ancestors found fruits and berries, corn, edible plants and other vegetation and ate the good parts, discarding the seeds without thought, here and there, or in the garbage. In other cases they ate the seeds, which passed through them to find themselves in newly fertilized ground. In this early period, one would have to conclude, agriculture was not yet routinized, even though it came to be later on.

I have also heard, from several reliable authorities, that we have entered, or are entering the age of innovation. I am not entirely certain I know what this means, but I wonder if it might not mean that the dominant mode of production in these emerging times involves the creation of incrementally — or drastically — more valuable outputs given the same inputs. For some, this is the very definition of capitalism.

I find the parallel with the age of early agriculture compelling. Even though innovation is being practiced all around us, we are still in a very preliminary phase of being able to actually understand what is going on, how it yields us benefit, and what parts of the process are critical to its success in different climates, sectors of industry and world cultures.

One of the great challenges to innovation is the multiple dimensions of any sophisticated consumer product, all of which need to aligned, first of all, to the consumer’s needs and expectations, but also to one another so as to create a harmonious and integrated whole. It is nearly impossible for any one intellect to hold together in his or her mind all these different requirements, variable options, possible alignments and points of disalignment at once. At the same time, when different functional teams try to come together to develop a new version of a consumer product, we may encounter the trend towards mediocrity and even stupidity that is known as ‘design by committee.’ Clearly, leadership is required for innovation to arise, and at the same time there must be some way for the distinctive insights and knowledges of different specialist teams come together and contribute towards this more complex whole which is the new consumer good.

In our experience, the best way for this to arise is a process we call Design Analysis. Having completed ethnographic fieldwork, and having gained rich contextual insights into how intended users of the new product or service deal with each other and the existing resources in their lives, we organize this data into a set of Use Cases and Failure Cases.

One may define a complete set of Use Cases as a series of descriptions of (usually optimal) user behavior, each of which is non-overlapping, analytically indivisible and collectively comprehensive for the product, service or technology being developed.

Conversely, Failure Cases capture the non-optimal behaviors or experiences which must be overcome in order for the solution to be successful from the point of view of the User. This is the set that most interests us.

We then undertake an analysis of each Use Case and interrogate it so as to reveal what is the cause of the failure observed — is it material? visual? informational? contextual? systemic? And how is this the case?

This eventually leads us to identifying a series of likely solution vectors, which may be classified, for example, as product form, product color-material-finish, product interaction, product infographics, in the case of an actual product, for example a portable ECG machine or a new kind of cellphone or tablet device.

In other cases, where the challenge has to do with systems or services design, these solution vectors might look more like information management, training and capacity enablement, systemic and organizational redesign.

At this point, of course, we have only captured the possible solutions, which are relevant to known problems. We have yet to integrate them into a new prototype concept. All of that can come later. In my view, however, this analytic stage represents the very crux of innovation. It is this series of cognitive maneuvers that proves hardest for most minds to accomplish, precisely because we are not generally taught to think in this backwards way.

Design Analysis is a critical means through which the express and latent needs of Users can be married with the technical capabilities of a complex product or service in a systematic and organized manner. These skills can be taught. This process is replicable. And it is by making it more widespread and more easily understood, learned and applied, that we can more fully achieve the promise of this Age of Innovation.

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