Part 1 Innovation, Design Methodology, and the Current Design Discourse – Innoliteracy


Innovation, Design Methodology, and the Current Design Discourse

At the heart of the discourse currently influencing design practice, education, and research – as well as political agendas where design has captured a space, however marginal – there seems to be very little space dedicated to the dimension of giving form and shape to tangible artifacts. Most of the space seems to have been occupied by discussions on how design as a methodological approach can enhance the development and innovation of not only products, but also services, business models, and organizations – across industries and in private and public sectors alike. One result has been that the discourse has revolved much more around design thinking than design doing.

If one consults a fairly authoritative source, one of the frontrunners of design thinking, IDEO’s Tim Brown, design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. There might be many more or less parallel and slightly different takes on exactly what the concept encompasses, but in any case, it has, to an almost frightening degree, guided the discussions and approach to what design is and what design can do during the last decade or so. Despite and seemingly totally disregarding that, Harvard University professor of architecture, Peter G. Rowe wrote his book Design Thinking in 1986.1

When the discussion has not revolved around design thinking, terms such as strategic design, service design, and design management will often occur. According to an authoritative source such as Politecnico di Milano’s web source,, strategic design is a design activity that concerns the product service system, meaning the integrated body of products, services, and communication strategies that either an actor or a network of actors (companies, institutions, nonprofit organizations, etc.) generate and develop to create value. Companies working with strategic design are aware of how products and services influence social ecosystems, people’s social lives, their everyday challenges, and how they see themselves, and work systematically and strategically with such insights to add value to their propositions.

The core of service design, on the other hand, is to facilitate, through design thinking, a transaction or exchange between a supplier and the user of a service. It consists of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication, and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive, and relevant to the customers. As service design has been as – or even more – readily embraced by the public as the private sector, I will often refer to citizens, users, or beneficiaries, rather than customers.

Finally, design management is a specific discipline revolving around managing design processes and facilitating – through systems and organizational interventions – maximum return on the financial, human, and technology resources allocated to a given design challenge or project or to building design awareness and a design-centered culture.

While design professionals and design thinkers have developed their practice and theoretical understanding of design, design is still being kept alive as a lifestyle phenomenon by magazines and newspaper weekend specials, perpetuating the more common understanding of design as a feature differentiating good taste from bad and expensive furniture from inexpensive and as synonymous with fashionable, and interestingly enough, primarily urban living, materialized in fancy cars, garments, and accessories – an approach to design, which has not been comme il faut in design circles for decades. Perhaps that also explains why design as a concept points in all kinds of directions, and despite the attention it has been given, has failed – at least so far – to convince the world of its aptness as tool for improvement, innovation, and change.

Despite its adolescence as a concept – steadily growing and maturing, and yet, not yet deserving the respect that grown-ups crave – design has, in fact, proven its potential as a source of inspiration and tool for change, though unfortunately in the most courageous parts of industry primarily. Many of the tools are found in the methodological toolbox of the practicing designer and adapted to fit into the theoretical framework needed to attract attention on a corporate level. The only dimension, which has been from the beginning and still is a pillar in design practice, which rarely seems to reach the pages of management literature dealing with innovation, is aesthetics, a solution’s ability to appeal to the emotional and sensorial apparatus of – thus being more likely to be embraced by – the user.

The Starting Point for the INNOLITERACY Model

In the model discussed in detail later on in this book, each one of the iterations I suggest – each stage of the development process or each “round,” as I will most often refer to it – has a heading and a fixed and recognizable format throughout to the end. This is primarily to make sure that focus is kept on the objective of the process. It leads us from understanding and validating the problem and its relevance through to the validity and viability of different scenarios and the aesthetical resonance of the final solution. A substantial part of the resources are suggested to be allocated to understanding what the problem is and making sure that we solve the right problem, before even thinking about how to solve anything at all – not to mention what he solution will look and feel like. Then, when the time is right, and we know that we’re on the right track, we look at possible ways of making a difference and of developing propositions, which will be sought after and preferred by users, citizens, beneficiaries, or customers. . . .

As such, an obvious starting point for this book would be the famous expression “form follows function” – often used to portray the Danish Modern era pivoting after the Second World War, but which was actually introduced by the American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896. If the problem is not precisely identified, it makes little sense to solve it, and if the solution proposed is not valid, it makes little sense to go to lengths to give it a form and a shape.

On the other hand, while maintaining that form follows function, it is important not to see this as a devaluation of form itself. It was then – and I believe that it is today – a mere recognition of its logic as one of nature itself, thus not really something to question. When its normative meaning has been discussed over and over again without success, it might be because design is anything but normative. Discussing design requires and deserves a contextual backdrop.

In any case, form follows function in my world, and yet, the aesthetic dimension should never be underestimated, as should aesthetics never be degraded to be a question of visual beauty only. I will discuss aesthetics in more detail in Part 2, but I can already here reveal that to me, aesthetics is all about how an individual or a group of individuals experiences, relates, and connects to a product or a situation. Even though aesthetics – in accordance to mine as well as most other definitions – is of fundamental significance for the user experience, users have rarely any influence on this part of the process, unless they are asked to relate to a final or close to final solution. I will give some examples of how users were or could have been involved. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of, for example, digital design solutions, where no one ever cared to engage users in the development of a meaningful user interface.

And it is not as if user engagement is something new and untested. One of the most famous personalities from the Bauhaus school in Weimar, and later on Dessau and Berlin, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, way back in 1923 proclaimed that the whole idea of the “movement” was that “No, this is not about products,...but people.” Hungarian-born Moholy-Nagy headed the ground school of Bauhaus from 1923 to 1928, before he decided to work as an independent designer for a decade in Germany and later on in England. In 1937, he moved to the United States, where he established the “School of Design,” which later became “Institute of Design,” and from 1949, the first in the United States – and still one of the world’s leading – academic design educations as part of Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

One of the founders of the Danish Modern movement, Kaare Klint was also convinced that a precondition to design good, properly dimensioned furniture, which would be embraced by its users, was a thorough understanding of the human body, its dimensions and movements, human activity, and sentiments. It sounds so obvious that the need for a book about user involvement in the twenty-first century seems almost superfluous, but unfortunately, that is most certainly not the case, and I cannot stop wondering why that is.

Sometimes, not engaging users in the development process is a conscious choice, and provided the choice is not made out of lack of knowledge of how to engage stakeholders in the process, there is no way I or anyone else can contest it. Most of all because some of the most successful companies I know practice this exclusive discipline quite consistently – from the global coffeemaker maker BODUM to the most common of all examples of an innovative organization; Apple. For the latter, it would probably not be possible to pursue their strategy of building a global hype prior to every product launch if an unknown number of users had had the chance to see, try, and leak the novelties beforehand. For BODUM, it rests in a more pragmatic observation – that after decades of being active in the marketplace for kitchen utensils and household products, in combination with a senior management as well as a fine-masked net of retailers throughout the world with deep understanding of and close dialogue with its customers, their ability to hit the target has proven almost unchallenged, with the involvement neither of users nor external designers. They just know what they’re doing and they do it well. Good for them.

On Innovation

So many books have already been written on the significance of innovation, and on how it can be embedded in corporate as well as public sector organizations, that I have quite consciously decided to skip the “what it is and how it works” chapter, which you may have expected as part of this introduction. I have decided to, rather, see my own contribution as support to and a supplement of much of what exists already, without pointing in any specific direction as to where the best source of a basic understanding of innovation is found.

I do, however, have two recommendations for literature, which has helped me understand the field of innovation and the textbook material available on it. One of them is Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard,2 a book, which deals with human behavior at its core and the barriers we all have within us when we are confronted with something new. It not only points toward them, but also describes in a fascinating manner how we can challenge ourselves and prime ourselves to be more receptive to change and the unknown.

The other is a book resembling no other books: World Changing – A User’s guide for the 21st Century,3 an anthology with contributions from an impressive range of thinkers within areas as diverse as politics and philosophy, societal and urban development, design and innovation, and with a foreword by former vice president Al Gore, a foreword commencing with these words, “This book is about rising to meet the great challenges of our day.” No more, no less.

Moreover, a wide range of web sources offer valuable inspiration and new knowledge on better understanding of and hands-on advice on how to foster change and renewal in companies and organizations – in addition to all the groups available on social media, such as, for example, LinkedIn. Just start searching. But, as this book takes as its departure design management as professional practice and area of research, it seems unavoidable to point to one specific source of insight and inspiration – regardless of whether one chooses to be a member or not – the Design Management Institute (DMI), a U.S.-based organization, which aspires to be international, despite its immediately recognizable roots. Which is OK, in the sense that I would claim as a fact that much of the knowledge we have on innovation, and which will influence European companies and organizations greatly, was developed in the United States.

To me, innovation means to create something new or improve something already existing, by which the perceived or real value of the product, service, process, or transaction is higher than what was previously possible to deliver. I also need to point out that “perceived or real value” in my world has to do with much more than the bottom-line, regardless of single or triple. It has to do with user experience and the contribution of the solution in question to reach a higher goal, whether that goal can be measured in terms of aesthetics or attraction, accessibility or usability, thought-provoking or taboo breaking. And – just because the whole concept of “value” is so ambiguous, the reflection and intellectual anchoring of any process based on design methodology is so crucial.

Design Methodological Innovation

Innovation taking design methodological empiricism as its point of departure demands a process where not only users, but all possible – however remotely relevant – stakeholder groups are thought into the value chain of which the challenge and the solution is part. Not only on paper, but in practice – systematically and wholeheartedly, with the objective of tapping into all existing and relevant knowledge, sentiments, and biases. It might be cumbersome, and in any case, it requires certain resources, both in terms of manpower and budgets, and it is not in itself a guarantee of a leaner or more efficient process – quite often the opposite. On the other hand, the probability of delivering the most sustainable and relevant proposition available within realistic restrictions is significantly higher. This is not only something that has been tried and experienced by many. It has also been duly and properly documented by research conducted by research institutions and a range of projects funded either by national governments or by supranational bodies such as the European Union. A remaining question, though, seems to be how this knowledge finds its way out and into corporate as well as public sector boardrooms and management teams. Despite the overwhelming number of governmental as well as nongovernmental authorities and agencies in existence, no such mechanism seems to exist – the one dedicated to spreading the gospel of innovation and how its mysteries are solved, its barriers overcome and its tangible results on bottom-lines as well as a handful of other measurable benefits harvested. For the same reason, it seems like there will still be a need – for some time yet – for people like myself and the projects I have been engaged in, to identify and indulge in the flow of new knowledge and new case studies produced every year, supporting the case for design-driven innovation and validating the experiences, insights, and reflections already made. This book is such a reflection in itself – anecdotal in its form, and yet tied up in a model, which didn’t seem to exist before – and for which my ambition is to resonate with some of you readers, to an extent where you decide to apply it on your next development project. Start with a smaller one; just a small piece of advice. . . .

For almost two decades, I had the privilege of following the continuously growing interest in concepts related to design and innovation, and in particular, where the two are being seen as parts of the same whole. As CEO of the association of Danish design professionals from 2000 until 2012 – a window in time, where design as a concept has not only changed radically, but also gradually conquered new territories – I have had the chance to follow the discourse closely, whether the discussions had their origins in the professional environment, research community, or as part of political agendas. Many disown design as a key to innovation, while others turn their back on innovation as such, either because of the tendency of such discussions to be rather abstract and downright irritating. As such, design and innovation suffer from the same mix of enthusiasm and rejection as all new concepts, trends, or claims. However, while buzzwords appear, fight for acceptance and space, and then, most often disappear, reality is rather less volatile.

So is the solid, tried, and tested knowledge slowly accumulated as it is put to a test through one of the many aforementioned projects – knowledge of how design-driven innovation improves competitiveness through new and improved, smarter, more effective, and more sustainable products and services. Meaningful innovation in my book is where a new or improved product or service, a new organizational or business model, or changed behavior for the better as a whole contributes to a better experience for users and other stakeholders than any previously existing alternative. Very much in line with Herbert Simon, who said that, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”4

I have often been surprised at how difficult it has seemed to convince corporate leaders that investing in design and innovation is good business, pure and simple. We do no longer lack documentation or hard-core evidence that using the methodologies, which have always been labeled design practice – provided they are used strategically and systematically – pays off. Methodological approaches such as stakeholder engagement, iterations and cyclic, rather than entirely linear work process, continuous prototyping and focus on the aesthetical resonance of the solution we work toward, all these are vital contributors to the position that many companies and products have in our collective consciousness and in statistics of market penetration and support. And still, we hear again and again that working with design and designers is too risky, as “you never know what you get.” Which, by the way, is true – you don’t always know at the start what you’ll get out of a design process, and that is exactly why it is so valuable. If you knew from the beginning the outcome of a development process, to me, it comes across as almost silly to put so much energy into it. Then, just do it.

What any responsible R&D responsible needs to know, however, is which process, consisting of which elements and documentation of their efficacy and relevance to the challenge in question, he or she believes in and is prepared to endorse. There is no reason why the procurement of professional design and other innovation-related services should be left more to chance than the procurement of any other service, so don’t hesitate for a second to be demanding and critical of what you get.

Another argument for not embarking on an unknown journey with unfamiliar elements and less stringency than what is often seen in corporate environments is that one already has well-functioning project management models and tools, with which many creative methods would seem incompatible. INNOLITERACY challenges this assumption – in part, by looking at the assumed barriers for such integration and for putting it to a test, and in part, by proposing an iterative process model, which is clearly inspired by and easy to combine with the majority of the existing and most often distinctively linear models found in modern organizations.

The Significance of Solid, Documented Facts

Denmark was a pioneer with regard to actually documenting design’s effectiveness, in 2003, delivering the first quantitative as well as qualitative analysis of the economical effects of design, studying 1,017 companies to identify the correlation between design use and performance. It shows an unquestionable link between using design strategically and the revenue growth, profit, export sales figures, and attractiveness as employer of the companies studied.5 It also indicates that the companies with the deepest knowledge of design methodologies also benefit the most from procuring design services externally. Other studies, undertaken by players such as the already referred to DMI and the British Design Council, confirm the overall findings.

However, established as an academic discipline and domain, after four decades of struggling to be embraced by the business community, it still surprises me again and again how many executives with R&D, services, or business development responsibilities are utterly unfamiliar with design management as a concept. This is often reflected in corporate communication, where design, innovation, and business development are rarely seen as related. However, it needs to be added that the correlation between the three and the acknowledgement of design management seems far more common in the United States than it does in Europe. North American companies of a certain size often have several design managers among their staff, and design as an approach to the development of new products, services, and business models seems significantly more firmly rooted than what seems to be the case for their European parallels. I found an example of this in a job advertisement from the Akron, Ohio-based tire manufacturer Goodyear – a city, by the way, which both exists as a result of, but which also has suffered from the vulnerability of being totally dependent on the production and sales of tires.

Recently, they sought a Design Innovation Manager, and described the job responsibilities with, among others, the following;

This position requires a working knowledge of Primary Research (ethnography, intercept, in person, etc). Demonstrated experience in ideation and portfolio management to drive the commercialization of new products, processes and services. Prior work and interaction with third parties as related to designing value propositions. Prior work in designing value propositions around product, service, communications and systems for diverse groups of users. Design analysis and synthesis. Design user-centered value propositions. Behavioral prototyping. Conducting and leading workshops around brainstorming in groups. Secondary research. Project management. Digital, video & physical presentation of findings.

I feel quite certain that numerous European companies hire staff to fulfill some of the same roles – either wrapped in one or dispersed on several positions – and with the overall objective of securing the company’s competitiveness through constant development of new and improvement of existing products and services. However, I do not believe that I ever saw the same degree of articulated connectedness between design and innovation or between “value propositions” and design methodologies, as described in the ad. Perhaps the lack of articulation of what design can do is a primary – or at least contributing – factor in explaining why design is still fighting windmills in many corporate environments.

My own conviction is that corporate as well as public sector organizations, whose managements are well informed about and open to which methods and approaches benefit innovation within their own field – design methodologies included – and whose cultures encourage the individual to contribute to the innovation process, also perform better than the rest.

This book, hence deals with three very different, and yet, closely related components. The first is the ability to reflect and analyze what is needed to encourage individual as well as collective reflection. The other component is the importance of allocating more resources to and of managing the very early phases of the innovation process – focusing on framing and reframing and on making sure that one actually solves the right problem. And the third component is the correlation between the two aforementioned and the constant need to minimize risks in the development process – quite concretely, the risks of developing something which, at the end of the day, is never embraced by the market, by the users, or by the community for which it whom intended.

When wanting to share something, which to one self is important, finding a relevant and perceptive audience is a key challenge. The target group for new knowledge on innovation and creative methodologies is neither clearly defined nor easily reachable. It encompasses specialists and experts, middle management and senior management – in private as well as public organizations, large and small – responsible for delivering and constantly developing new or improve existing propositions, material as well as immaterial, operating in an analogue or a digital environment – or both, business to business, business to consumer, or just human to human. And on top of that, it represents every possible approach and level of maturity when it comes to how things are already done, who one’s stakeholders are, and how prepared one’s organization is for change.

My claim will be, though, that regardless of which of the descriptions above is seen as appropriate for your own organization, user-centric, iterative, and firmly managed development processes inspired by design practice and methodology will benefit your endeavors at enhancing your organization’s innovation capacity and performance. Needless to say, the methodologies need to be adapted and further developed to match the exact objectives, structures, products, or services, and audience, but having said that, there will be lots of inspiration and food for thought to find in the following.


INNOLITERACY is a constructed word, inspired by other and more commonly used words such as eco-literacy and computer literacy – both deriving from the overall semantic family of “literacy” and resonating with a trend, which over the last two decades was referred to as “new literacies,” the understanding of and skills within a specific area, introduced by the scholar David Buckingham in his article “Towards new Literacies, Information Technology, English and Media Education.”6 INNOLITERACY, in other words, means the understanding of and the skills to undertake innovation and innovation processes. As a matter of fact, it is rather closely related to a term, which is already seen quite frequently – design literacy.7 The difference, as I see it, is that design literacy most often refers to the understanding of the form and shape of an artifact or object, while “innoliteracy” focuses much more on the understanding of the journey leading to how we choose to solve any given problem.

Reflection, framing, and reframing are all stepping stones on this journey, thus prerequisites for meaningful innovation, as well as some of the most fundamental risk management tools we have access to. While we all reflect inadvertently and all the time (in French, to think translates into reflechir – to reflect), we do not always reflect consciously about what we are currently engaged in or the decisions we are about to make. Conscious refection is a targeted activity, giving oneself the opportunity to dwell and linger, instead of just jumping to conclusions.

I have often used children’s literature as a starting point to argue the value of a need for an actual and deliberate strategy for all one’s undertakings8:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”, Alice in Wonderland asked the Cheshire cat.

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the cat

“I don’t much care where –”, said Alice

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”, the cat responded.

It does matter where you want to go – not least to choose the right way. Our actions and every single choice we make are all made at the cost of an unknown and often unfathomable number of opt-outs. And just like the goals we choose to pursue determine which process we choose to follow, the results we reach and how close to the articulated goal we get also reflect to which degree the process chosen was the right one. On the same note, if the goal is not precisely defined, we run a great risk of choosing the wrong route, or – as a worst case – of not getting anywhere at all.

Perhaps we were created that way, but the fact is that many of us often choose the line of least resistance, and often, without having a clear vision of the goal. We seem to be more eager to get moving than to contemplate and make sure that we’re heading in the right direction, which means that we sometimes reach out for the most obvious and most comprehensible problem, without being clear about how it contributes to or fits into an overriding strategy or objective.

Sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed – for symbolic reasons, to send the right signal or to put out a fire. Sometimes, there is no need to complicate matters or to elevate the process to “rocket science.”9

But increasingly more often, in organizations relying on a multitude of intertwined and mutually dependent actors and mechanisms – internal as well as external – and where the organization’s propositions in the form of numerous product or service propositions are too opaque to understand the complexity at a glance, solving a “random” symptom (the one standing out as obvious to all) can be anything from waste of time to downright devastatingly harmful.

Solving Complex Problems

Complexity breeds complexity. A complex problem calls for a complex solution – not complicated, but a solution as facetted and complex as the problem it’s there to solve. In the book Complex Adaptive Systems, Scott E. Page and John H. Miller clearly distinguish the difference between the two characteristics:

We would, however, like to make a distinction between complicated worlds and complex ones. In a complicated world, the various elements that make up the system maintain a degree of independence from each another. Thus, removing one such element does not fundamentally alter the system’s behaviour apart from that which directly resulted from the piece that was removed. Complexity arises when the dependencies among the elements become important. In such a system, removing one such element destroys system behaviour to an extent that goes well beyond what is embodied by the particular elements that are removed.10

Complexity is directly correlated with risk – the more complex a situation is, the likelier it is that crucial factors are disregarded; factors, which may adversely influence the end result. One might just not register the factor at all, or one may mistake the situation for being complicated instead of recognizing its complexity, thus misinterpreting the situation, reaching for the wrong tools to address it and ending up with either a wrong solution, or even more common, the right solution to the wrong problem.

The misunderstanding is widespread. An example can be found on Virgin’s website, where the honorable Sir Richard also falls in the trap of mixing the two, as he flags the view that “Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple.” Again, complexity is being equaled with complication, and even elevated to being the wisdom of life.

Because there are no simple solutions to complex problems, it also means that entering into solution mode can have quite severe consequences with regard to human as well as financial resources, independently of whether the problem is solved in-house or with the help of eternal resources.

The researcher John Kamensky has captured this quite nicely, by saying that:

Understanding the difference between a complicated problem and a complex one is important for today’s leaders. They require different strategies and tools that are largely not interchangeable. Sometimes a problem will morph from one state to the other – either from complicated to complex, or vice versa – so you’ll need to be ready to adapt your strategies and tools accordingly.11

So, to understand the problem and its complexity is of utmost importance to activate the right forces to solve it. It goes without saying that both financially and with regard to deploying other valuable resources, it is quite important that one actually addresses the right problem, and that this has been defined and articulated as precisely as possible. This seems and sounds quite obvious, but isn’t necessarily so out there, in the real world. Partly, we all tend to react to symptoms, rather than sourcing the root of evil. We take painkillers instead of taking 3 days off to clear our system of the underlying reasons for the headache. In the same way, we see organizations reacting to low-hanging symptomatic problems instead of relating to their origin. We fire employees with underperformance as pretext, while we fail to analyze whether their competences and conditions for doing the job are right. Or we solve problems with clients’ complaints by making the client happy in the situation, by giving an extra rebate or by adding value to the specific transaction, while the underlying reasons for the problem, which may stem from anywhere in the value chain, remains unresolved. Or, we establish yet another web platform or develop yet another app to alleviate an unwanted development – from obesity to stress symptoms, or to underpin a desirable development – from the use of bicycle helmets to more biodynamic consumption. But we far too often do not address the core of the challenges we observe.

To identify the right problem and to assess its degree of complexity is a question about being able to think systemically. Systematically – yes, but systemically, more than anything else. Systemic thinking is all about thinking holistically, contextually, and in terms of value chains.

Our way forward is what we call “systemic thinking.” It is a way of thinking that emphasizes connectedness and enables people to see the bigger picture; one in which owners, solvers, solutions, problem-solving methods and problem descriptions are portrayed as a whole system.12

Moreover, systemic thinking requires the ability to abstract from and challenge the already existing imagery of the situation at hand. Abstraction is something most of us struggle with – in particular, in professional contexts – as we excel at bringing our expertise and the knowledge that we have to the table as soon as we can, and by doing so, we prohibit ourselves the privilege of dealing with the situation as an opportunity with numerous possible outcomes.

Abstraction requires time and space to reflect, and just as important, it requires an openness to add intuition and tacit knowledge – our own as well as others’ – to the formalized knowledge in which our professional identity often rests. Tacit knowledge is silent and unarticulated – thus, we need to give its articulation time for it to become coherent and valuable input to the process.

Of course, it may come across as a paradox to disclose and articulate – to formalize – intuition and tacit knowledge, as it can never be made tacit again. Therefore, it needs to be done only when necessary to avoid drying out the reservoir of tacit knowledge in ourselves and in our organization, as the silence itself is extremely valuable. Somehow, it can almost be compared to an organization’s other immaterial assets, such as its goodwill and its intellectual capital. However, managed carefully, it makes sense to source the unconscious and intuitive, as long as we make sure that new experiences and new discourse deposit new tacit knowledge in us, as individuals and as organizations.

Just like our own tacit knowledge is a valuable resource, so is all the people an organization has access to “exploit” – staff at all levels, partners, clients, fans – also part of the organization’s intellectual capital and possible sources of innovation or elements thereof.

Krister Ahlström, a well-known Finnish industrialist and chairman of the Finnish Design Roundtable, once said: “The most valuable contribution of designers is that they are able to read the weak signals.” By reading the weak signals from all these actors, inspiration for new or improved services, products, experiences – or even business models – can emerge.

We all have good ideas once in a while – some of us more often than others. And in every single new idea hides the seeds to valuable solutions to recognized as well as not yet recognized problems, but for such ideas to grow and mature into sustainable solutions, it takes a set of conditions, which promotes, rather than prohibits such growth.

Left – Right – Forward – Aft

One approach to discussions about how to nurture creativity and innovation is to which extent an organization consists of or is dominated by left-brain or right-brain individuals. When I decided to allocate some space for this discussion, it is because it tends to steer the recruitment of certain types of staff, as well as who is invited to be part of the innovation processes in an organization. Even though the discussion may seem a little old-fashioned and out of tune with the more current attitude that we can all contribute to creative processes, we cannot deny that new ideas and thinking outside of the box comes more naturally to some than to others. But if we really want to approach this physiologically, it takes more than just a distinction between the left and the right side of the brain. There is also the forward and the aft, and the lower and the upper – it all reminds more than anything about a German grammar lection (An, Auf, Hinter . . . and so on).

The theory of the different properties of the two halves of the brain is normally ascribed to the neuropsychologist Roger Wolcott Sperry, who received the Nobel Prize of Medicine in 1981 for his work. His research showed that the left side of the brain – except for “running” the right part of the body – represents logic, focus on detail, words and languages, sense of time, our understanding of mathematics and science, the name of things, analysis and strategies, and our sense of practicality. Actually, a majority of us are left-brainers, and for the same reason, most of us are right-handed.

The right hand side of the brain – adversely – manages the left side of the body, but besides, it is also the “creative” side of the brain, managing our emotions and our ability to visualize and abstract and to think holistically, our beliefs and faith, philosophy and art, fantasies and impulse, our sense of adventure and opportunity. People who are all these things, exposing that they are dominated by their right side of the brain, then ought to be left-handed. That, however, is not the case, and curiously enough, nobody has been able to explain this paradox until date.

So, our left side of the brain supports our linear thinking and in components, while our right side of the brain supports iterative and holistic thinking – what is also known as “gestalt.” One side focuses on detail and one on the whole, one produces artists and designers and architects, while the other produces accountants and engineers.

However, that’s just half the truth. Others have elaborated on and further developed on the Nobel Prize winner Wolcott Sperry’s research. In addition to left versus right – as if it were an electoral campaign – the outer part of the brain, both on the right and the left hand side, the cortex, processes sensory experiences and controls cognitive functions such as thinking, remembering, and making decisions, all being undertaken in four separate areas with each their own functions.

The foremost part of the brain is called the frontal lobe. It deals with conscious thinking, planning, and organizing. It also manages most of our recollection and attention. Moreover, it has fairly significant influence on our emotional life.

Behind it, we find the parietal lobe. It focuses on processing sensory impressions, such as distinguishing between physical pain and more pleasurable forms of impact on our body, such as caresses; it processes information on pressure and temperature; and it also influences on our ability to recognize tactile experiences and control our movements.

Underneath the two aforementioned, we find the temporal lobe, managing sensory experiences such as smelling, tasting, and hearing, besides a major part of our memories. And behind it, just above the cerebellum, we find the occipital lobe, which captures and processes visual impressions.

All these elements, just like the left hand and the right hand side of the brain, are developed to different degrees in different individuals. This means that if we actually want a systemic approach to any given situation, and as many different interventions as possible, it is not enough to balance the number of left-brainers and right-brainers – not even mentioning the tendency of forming a predominantly right-brain team together – we also need to balance the group with regard to the different types of rational and cognitive understanding found in the forward part of the brain with the different types of sensory, visual, and emotional experience found in the aft.

As one can imagine, this really starts to become quite complicated (not complex). My own proposition would be to think along a totally different and much simpler line than balancing quotas of dominance by different areas of cortex. By applying diversity in its simplest form – expressed by individual preferences and styles in clothing and lifestyle, in social and material positioning, cultural affinity and behavior vis-à-vis other people and situations – one secures that all parts of the brain and as many optics on life at large are represented. At the same time as it is useful to know how our brains are constructed, how differently and how significantly that influences on our personalities and preferences, I reject the idea that one part of humanity – based on their cerebral configuration – is better suited to engage in creative processes than the other. Diversity is a quality in itself, and even though an individual is not particularly creative as such, there are many other ways in which one can contribute to development, renewal, and change. Just being reminded that not everyone is a blue copy of oneself contributes to a creative and innovative culture.

One Danish company, which has embraced diversity for real, both as a corporate social responsibility disposition and because they have realized the value it brings to its culture, is Foss, a very profitable, global, and yet, family-owned manufacturer of highly advanced analysis equipment for agricultural and food-processing purposes. By leaving the management of their own staff catering facilities to a vocational school for the mentally impaired, all employees in their kitchen and employee restaurant – except for a few responsible managers – are people with special needs and a different outlook on the world than the rest of the staff. One may argue that well, they are highly profitable, so they can afford the luxury of showing some responsibility. My postulate would be that they are highly profitable because they represent the courage and mental and cultural abundance to weigh diversity over complacency. Actually, a really interesting company and business model is “Specialisterne,” which translates from Danish as “The Specialists.” It has dedicated itself to enable jobs for people with autism and similar challenges. As a socially innovative organization, it was one of the first companies in the world with a team of specialized IT business consultants, all of whom have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. More and more companies explore and learn to appreciate the value of true diversity.


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