According to the author of two books dedicated to the art and power of framing, in an organizational context, framing represents “the means by which leaders and students of leadership, learn to manage meaning.”1
Professor Robert M. Entman of George Washington University2 in his research refers to framing as “scattered conceptualization” – to choose some factors over others with the purpose of supporting an idea or favor one assessment to another – or simply to strengthen a message.
There is a quote, attributed to Albert Einstein:
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
Reframing is all about “determining the proper question to ask”; about seeing a situation, challenge, or problem from as many different angles as possible. Framing and reframing make up the process where we, either subconsciously or in a more structured manner, assess and understand what the situation or problem at hand is all about, its context, and its construct.
Once in a while, one is faced with the situation of someone, perhaps a teenage nephew or someone else with the guts to challenge one’s intellectual capacity – featured at the back of a boulevard newspaper; a so-called brain-twister. The challenge is often rather banal – at least at first glance; we also know them from recruitment tests and admission tests for organizations for the gifted, or at least so, I’ve been told. Actually, besides a trivial pursuit, they can be quite valuable to train and encourage new ways of looking at a problem. Mostly for fun, this is one example:
The challenge is specified to connect the nine dots with a maximum of four lines without lifting the pencil from the paper, and without crossing any of the nine dots more than once.
Piece of cake – again, at first glance – but often trickier than what you’d think, especially when the four lines are suddenly “used” and there is still an unconnected dot. Damn. But it forces one to think out of the box. How far outside of the dots must I go? Well, nobody put any restrictions on that, really. And nobody said that the lines had to be straight, did they?
The standard solution to the challenge, and authorized by the Danish Ministry of Education, where the test can be found, is this:
The “standard” solution shows that it is actually possible to move beyond the perimeters that we all create in our own heads, framing the nine dots. As the “authorized” and ministerial comment to the models says:
Our personality tends to react normatively. We allow being limited by what we see on our inner screen – in this case straight lines, crossing the centre of the dot and departing equally far from the configuration on all sides etc.
– without any of those being limitations we actually need to observe.
Thus, in addition to the “authorized” solution, one could also imagine other ways of approaching the challenge, and which are equally aligned with the brief; for example, this one:
or this one
Nobody prohibited us from nor forced us to use all four lines – that was a maximum – and nobody demanded the lines to be straight or thin, so a single line, whether curved or just very fat, also solves the problem perfectly well. The Hungarian Noble Prize winner in Medicine in 1937, Albert Szengyörgyi, who received the prize for the discovery of the Vitamin C, said at the prize ceremony that “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.” Fortunately, there is always someone who, just and without questions, takes things for what they are.
David Straker is a psychologist and author, focusing on problem solving and decision making, persuasion, and influence. He manages a web source called www.changingminds.org, which – in short – revolves around finding the best possible solution to the rightest possible problem. He explains that we instinctively frame everything around us, according to an internalized map consisting of assumptions that we never question, and which we use when decoding and making sense of what happens around us. If one element in the frame changes or is reframed, what we experience is suddenly decoded differently and changes meaning. To reframe, we need to take a step backward from what is being said or happens before us, and try to understand the situation in the context of the frame in which it is said or takes place. We also need to try to understand the tacit assumptions and motives for the situation, and by saying, “let’s look at this through a different lens,” we challenge the frame and can assess it more freely. One way of doing this is to question whether the situation is characterized by being a problem or an opportunity, a strength or a weakness (what we know as a SWOT analysis), if it is a situation which needs an intervention, something we simply cannot do anything about, or possibly, a mere misunderstanding.
So, the process of framing and reframing is all about establishing a relevant context for the challenge one wants to work with, to explore different perspectives, to challenge the “truth” and to influence both one’s own and others’ mind-set and mental state of mind in the situation. One has to introduce what Raymond Turner calls a “bias free zone” – a space where everyone is reminded that no ideas are shot down; they are all valid until discussed and put to a test. Reflection is one out of several, but possibly the most important individual tool to test whether the problem at hand – its meaning, significance, and implications – is just the most conspicuous one, hence the one our instincts would call upon us to solve. But again, there are many other approaches to put a challenge to test and to make sure that the situation is properly framed and reframed before a development or change process demanding all kinds of resources is embarked upon.
One of the reformists of Danish corporate culture, Lars Kolind, known for what was called the “spaghetti organization” when he introduced it as CEO of the global hearing aid manufacturing company Oticon in the late 1980s, had as his starting point the need to “reframe” what it takes for a company to perform better.3
Cutting down was not a bad thing – he compared it to pruning a fruit tree, where the branches not carrying fruit are cut away, but mostly to give more light and nutrition to those that do. I had the pleasure of taking part in a leadership camp at his private estate, where he lives and hosts leadership development programs. There, he talked a lot about “mental models.” Everyone has a mental model constructed from their own professional background, organizational affinity, position and social standing, and so on. The challenge is to reframe one’s own role by understanding and getting a clear picture of which model one carries, and then, reflect upon how and when it came into being, on which logic it is founded, and whether it supports the goals and objectives one has and strives toward. The same questions can be asked about one’s contribution to and mental model in relation to a specific process or development project.
All organizations, just like each and every one of us as individuals, survive and blossom by being in constant movement and in constant development. As a professional organization, it is a prerequisite for survival that a strategically conceived and managed development takes place at all times – whether it focuses on organizational structures or individual competences, internal processes and routines, or on the products or services one’s justification in the market depends on. And yet, one should always ask if all development is necessarily good or needed.
In principle, there are two kinds of development: the one which appears as “organic,” ongoing, and subtle, and just a natural reflection of a dynamic and conscious organizational culture, where common goals and aspirations for the organization in itself is a driving force for gradual improvements, and where it neither is defined as a “project” nor managed by anyone in particular. The other kind is “strategic,” conceived and managed as an integrated part of an overall plan. Both kinds most often take place in parallel, and should point in the same overall direction; otherwise, there are some serious issues to be discussed in the organization. This book focuses primarily on the latter kind; development or change through strategically conceived and managed processes related to what it is that the organization delivers or how.
When I, quite deliberately, equal change and development, and see both as results of an innovation process, it is simply because far too often, something new is developed from scratch instead of improving on something already existing. Often, solutions which fundamentally respond to a specific need already exist, whether on stock or developed to a point, where delivery can easily be done, and where rather marginal changes are needed for the solution to be marketable or to fulfill user expectations. Far too often, companies respond to falling market shares by developing a new product or service that can boost sales and revenue, while often, a slight redesign or optimization of an already existing product or service would have been a much better investment.
The question of whether to start afresh or whether to build upon something existing needs to be resolved after careful consideration and as part of the very early phases of a development process, by allocating time and resources to really get to the bottom of whether the market one operates in and the position one already has in it call for strategies to supplement existing products or services with new ones, exchanging the existing with new, or merely optimizing the already existing ones. Giving the marketplace more options does not necessarily make it either easier or more likely to choose what it is that you have to offer, and a choice between a constantly growing number of options does not make the one who has to choose more content about their choice – rather, the opposite. In fact, research shows quite clearly that a supplier or brand often loses its grip by the user, if the number of options makes the choice too hard.4,5
Many would claim that framing and reframing are already part of the standard process model that most designers as well as organizations working with development use. Design – or problem solving, if you wish – is an iterative process, which probably explains why most graphic representations of design processes consist of circular elements. And it’s true that most development processes to be found – even somewhat, and possibly unfairly generalized – roughly consist of the same stages:
• Identify the problem.
• Identify criteria and barriers.
• Generate ideas for possible solutions.
• Explore realistic scenarios.
• Choose among alternatives.
• Create a prototype.
• Test and refine.
• Produce, execute, or launch.
However, these are not necessarily a sequential process, where the individual elements come in exactly the listed order.
Equally generalized, but still valid for many larger organizations, all these “iterations” are part of an overall, linear process – more often than not a version of or inspired by the “stage-gate model,” based on clearly defined milestones throughout the process. When an idea has been developed, it has to pass the first “gate” before the actual process can start. The first stage is called “scoping” or “innovation assessment”; then a gate, then a stage focusing on exploring and elaborating on the idea; and then, the next gate. If the idea is mature and passes the gate, the next stage focuses on building a business case or a “proof of concept” for further development (Figure 3.1).
After the third gate, the actual development process starts in collaboration with clients or other stakeholders, and this is where the bulk of the resources allocated are most often disposed of.
After the fourth “gate,” the project enters into a testing and validation stage, before the fifth and last “gate” determines whether to launch or not. Regardless of which one out of an unknown, but extensive number of versions of the “stage-gate model” one encounters, it replicates the pattern of managing the process through a set of decision-making “locks” to ensure that resources are not wasted on a project, which at the end of the day, is not a viable proposition. It should also be mentioned that a vast majority of the organizations which have adopted Cooper’s thinking have adapted the model to their own needs and worldview.
Many would also claim that framing and reframing are both natural elements in the three first phases of the process, where the problem is scoped, criteria and barriers identified, and ideas generated and prototyped. And of course, the problem and its solution are both adjusted as new insights about the problem are gathered through the search for a solution, but the purpose is rarely to challenge the problem, but rather, to make one’s understanding of the problem and the first traces of a realistic solution meet.
My claim is that there are loads of arguments to choose an approach, where a relatively large portion of the available resources is allocated to the very early phases of a process. The weightiest argument to do so is not to dwell on the nitty-gritty details of the problem identified before the development process as such starts, but to make sure that it is actually the right problem we address.
The paradox, as I see it – as the two are often seen as contradictory – is that there is no contradiction at all between following a linear process, as represented by, for example, the stage-gate model and working design methodologically with its focus on exploration and excavation of underlying layers, and to “read the weak signals.”
Actually, the stage-gate model does not prescribe which activities that actually take place within each individual stage, between the four (sometimes more) gates, a project has to pass. In fact, the headings more than indicate that certain iterations are implicitly part of each one of the five stages. So, from here on, my assumption is that the development process, as such, is linear and that decisions are made at crucial points in time as it moves along, and that each “stage” contains a series of iterative processes, allowing for continuous reflection and reframing.
The INNOLITERACY model is simply a proposition for those, looking for a more “organic” and “grounded” development model, on one side structured as any classic development process from A to Z, and on the other, embracing the uncertainties and unforeseen elements that wondering and questioning, reflecting, trying and failing, and welcoming input from as many different sources of inspiration as possible, add. Its overall objective is to open up for deeper insights and a more profound understanding of the problem itself as well as those for whom a solution is developed.
I personally do not believe in simple and unambiguous methods, often presented as “quick fixes,” and I question the value of any attempt to reduce a complex issue to a simple drawing, graph, or formula as if there were any shortcut to meaningful innovation. This book goes against the trend, as such, as it sort of presupposes that the reader has the time and interest to actually read it – not from cover to cover at once, I think it tastes much better in small portions – and that he or she takes the inspiration it hopefully offers back into their own organizations and day-to-day operations, and into the processes where future development activities are planned and resources allocated. All that said, I had to realize as I worked with the material, that a graphic representation of my thinking to organize its elements and to accentuate its focus on reflection and reframing was inevitable.
Up until now, the whole concept of reflection has been the most crucial individual element in a process, more than anything focusing on the current situation to make sure that the energy is directed toward solving the right problem. I have also tried to describe the conditions needed to allow an organization and its management to access all available, valuable sources of contributions to it. I will revert to both of these “inhibitions” as we move on, but for now, I will divert my focus from the individual, the subject, to the model framework wherein the process takes place.
So-called creative processes are often challenged in environments focusing on increasingly fierce demands for measurable ROI for each single decision, operation, or approach as a result of LEAN processes, productivity benchmarks, or demands for austerity. And as such, there is pretty good evidence supporting that creativity in itself does not create much value in an organization. Research shows that investment in design in itself is no guarantee of better performance, unless the design process is integrated into the overall strategies of the organization and managed with the same stringency and demands for accountability as any other process taking place within the organization.6
Design management is perhaps the best example of a structured approach to managing creative processes, as design is the individual creative discipline, which to the greatest extent, has found its way into commercial as well as not-for-profit organizations as an approach to accommodating needs for change and development. Based on the rather extensive literature on design management produced up through the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s, we now have systematically generated and documented knowledge on how to benefit the most from processes, where design and designers play a key role. In brevity and perhaps unjustly simplified, the research shows that the benefits are directly correlated with the degree of strategic anchoring and management support, multidisciplinarity and extensive stakeholder engagement, and with design processes being managed with the same prudence and professionalism as any other key area for the organization – be it digitization or human resource development or the building of a new domain.
I have earlier referred to Cooper’s stage-gate model as a very common, and in most cases, extremely useful basis model for development of new products, services, and systems. At the same time, its basic structure is so simple that most organizations using it have revised it to be more targeted and to fit more immediately into the individual organization’s own structure and understanding. Moreover, at the same time as being linear, it has proven quite clearly that it does not necessarily hamper an organization’s creativity. One of the most successful and creative companies of all times, LEGO, work with stage-gate as a fundamental process management tool, alongside and integrated with its own design development processes.7
A recently undertaken project, cofinanced by the EU – European House of Design Management (EHDM)8 – a project in which I was deeply involved over a 3-year period explores and aims at facilitating the transfer of successful design management and stakeholder engagement strategies from private sector design and innovation-driven companies to the public sector, thus helping the sector to absorb design thinking and design methodologies as a relevant management tool when developing new public services. Also, this project has shown that it is necessary to observe linearity and stage-by-stage logics to resonate with how public services are both developed and delivered and the value chain that a public service provider is part of. Also in the EHDM project, the process skeleton clearly resembles the classic “stage-gate” model. The major difference lies in much heavier focus on audits, revisions, and validation as integrated elements of the development process itself, and built-in “loopholes” allowing extra iterations back to the exploration phase (Figure 3.2).
However, to revert to the original stage-gate model, I have chosen to start my journey with sticking to the five “stages” and tried to give them names, which are slightly more “generic” than the original, thus more accommodating to my attempt at building a higher degree of reflection, framing, and reframing into the process, and to work with more precisely articulated problems. The original terms are the ones in brackets. Moreover, I have deliberately removed the last “gate” – and I’ll get back to why that is when we get there (Figure 3.3).
However, the significance in changing the words is not the words themselves, just like the elements are rather parallel. The significance lies in introducing terms, which do not restrict us to development and launch of commercial products (even though we all know that a product can also be immaterial, most of tends to attach it to something coming out of a machine), but also to allow for the model to be applied to services, systems, and organizational changes. Another reason for challenging the terminology is to allow for a different allocation of resources than what the original model indicates. In general terms, my thinking calls for much more focus on and resources allocated to stages one and two, and for me, the second gate is far too early to make final decisions – at this stage, we’re still trying to understand which problem it is that we end up actually solving.
Fundamentally speaking, I believe that the model has deserved such universal appeal because it focuses on developing products faster and more efficiently and with more market relevance, and who could be against that? My claim, though, is that the same approach can be used to develop better solutions to problems in general by understanding the problem better.
At this stage, I have to clarify that I’m by far the first one to describe how design methodology and stage-gate thinking can coexist. One of the most recognized researchers and advocates for design management, the French professor Brigitte Borja de Mozota,9 in her book Design Management – Using Design to Build Brand Value and Corporate Innovation, which is standard curriculum for anyone studying design management, also uses Cooper’s model as a starting point, and then, adds the activities normally being part of a design process. Her contribution is inevitable and highly relevant even after more than a decade, and has been a vital source of inspiration for my further processing and thinking.
My contribution is by no means a rebellion against – or even criticism of – Cooper’s model. I will merely use it as a vehicle to further develop my own thinking, coming from design as an untapped potential, provided the process is managed as professionally as any other process in an organization, and as a mental framework for how a different approach to how any organization’s three key resources, time, people, and budgets, can be balanced differently from what we see in most organizations today. And as such, I’m totally on the same page as Cooper – to develop faster, more efficiently, and with better chances of success in the marketplace, and merely adding to it that there are different ways of doing so, and that a more design-driven approach might increase the chances of success, simply by focusing more on the early phases of the process than what most other models describe.
I could have chosen a different starting point, but as we all seem to relate quite intuitively to linear thinking and models, and as Cooper’s model is already part of most organizations’ methodical portfolio, it just seemed like a good place to start. And in any case, we will soon move on to what is actually novel in the INNOLITERACY approach.
At the end of the day, the most important is that a model and structure for development is found, which supports and fits the decision-making processes and how other processes are managed in the organization – partly to enhance the project’s own chances of success, but even more importantly, to make sure that it supports overall corporate strategies or, for that matter, the political ambitions for a local, regional, or national government.
On an operational level, the more important issue is to dispose of the resources available in the most effective manner possible within the chosen structure. And that’s what I will dwell on in the next section of the book, a discussion “stage” by “stage” and “gate” by “gate” – moving slowly toward a model which goes beyond de Mozota’s schematic merger of stage-gate and design, and which is not, at least not to the same degree, confined to the revenue-focused parameters known in the corporate world.
In the jungle of buzzwords we encounter in our innovation hungry age of time, “fuzzy front end” is one of the more interesting. The term is used about the very early and often a little messy idea generation phase, perfectly portrayed in Damien Newman’s “squiggle,” as you find in the preface of this book. This is the phase that I will focus on and encourage, that we all pay more attention to. Many have done so before me, and there is already quite a lot of literature and research devoted to it, describing the correlation between what our focus is at the outset of a project and the project outcome. The two researchers, Cornelius Herstatt and Birgit Verworn10 find that there is a direct correlation between the success rates of innovation projects on the one hand and the attention to and willingness to invest in the fuzzy front end. Moreover, an empirical study made by Cooper and Kleinschmidt as early as in 1988 supports that “high failure rates have often been related to insufficiencies, low management attention and poor financial support during the ‘fuzzy front end.’”11
So, much indicates that it is in the very early, foggy phases that the most interesting propositions as to which problem to actually solve are found, and where radically new solutions are born; here, where the process is not yet clearly defined and where the curiosity still is stronger than the urge to find the final answer. This is where the response to any given problem could still be a new method, a new service, a new product, or a new technology . . .
This is where the next-generation experience, economy, or welfare society is challenged. This is where designers in union with all kinds of other creative souls can think big ideas, elaborate into scenarios, and draft a future not yet defined. And this is where one understands what the real problem is. There is only one downside about this extremely fascinating space. Even though more than a decade has passed since the quoted findings were published, nothing much has happened to act on them. The organizations are still few and far between, which actually prioritize something “fuzzy” enough to actually unlock new perspectives on how we deal with a problem – in ways that nobody ever thought about before.
Many companies allocate both time and substantial budgets to future studies, and to forecast the role and potential of their products or technologies in a future and not yet existing market environment and competitive situation. But there’s often a limit to how fuzzy one can expect a company to be. If it excels at producing microchips for computers, the discussion will most probably revolve around new and yet not existing applications of microchips – or possibly what its successor will be. One would probably not be voted employee of the week if one’s proposition were to look at something really low-tech. Or if an employee of a concrete-based building firm suddenly started exploring the constructive potentials of bamboo.
So, the challenge is partly to take out as much fuzziness of the fuzzy front end as is needed to be given the necessary resources, and partly to make sure that the energy going into it is perceived relevant by those endorsing it (Figure 3.4).
Let’s get back to the model for a moment. Every iteration – and from here on, I will refer to it as a round, as most of us can relate to that – consists of several elements. The process consists of four rounds, each round producing an output, which will be fed into the following decision-making gate.
As an example that I will refer to again and again, I have chosen a hypothetical and yet very real and serious challenge shared by most parts of the Western world – the alarmingly increasing degree of obesity among children and youngsters. I could have chosen many other examples from the private or the public sector, but have chosen this particular one because of its transversal relevance, because of its complexity, and because no one seems to have found a viable approach to how to deal with it yet. And because I personally experienced the consequences of being overweight as a child and teenager, and I know which scars it leaves on a young person’s soul – scars that I would wish that others were spared.
Understanding the Problem
Regardless of which method is applied, the very first phase in the process should be to identify and understand the problem, a fundamental prerequisite for any meaningful later rounds with the objective of solving what we then agree on being the right problem.
The process starts with ideas and reflections, data, and whatever makes us believe that there is a challenge to be addressed being fed into the “system,” where it is all being discussed, sorted, and challenged. In many companies – probably also in many other forms of organizations – mechanisms to make sure that such input is reported to the relevant person or department is built into quality assurance systems or other procedures. Other organizations don’t, but the key issue at this stage is to identify which problem to address or whether it actually is a challenge to embark upon or not – regardless of whether it has been reported as one among many problems, based on user or operator feedback, whether it has been spotted as part of a strategy process, prompted by legislation or budget cuts, or simply by someone having a brilliant idea. And the problem or challenge can be of a nature, which is addressed by developing something new or improving on something already existing, be it a product, a service, an activity, or a physical space – or an instruction or legislation, for that matter. In any case, whether a problem, a challenge, or just an interesting venture, I have chosen the heading “understanding the problem” as the first thing for which some kind of consensus needs to be established. This is to ensure that among all the possible initiatives one could take, the “problem” most likely to give return on investment – no matter how ROI is measured – is the one addressed. This, however, is not the same as concluding that the problem is the most crucial one; it only means that a choice has been made, possibly among many other and equally interesting ones, and that a project has been called.
Then, some would say, “OK, so far so good, but we haven’t really got any further, then, have we . . .?” And the answer to that is Yes, because you have started and framed a process, and you have started a conversation. You have identified an area of concern, where everyone agrees that there is room for improvement. For example, within public health care, there may be hundreds of challenges “someone” ought to do something about – from obesity, smoking, and alcoholism via reproduction issues to growing numbers of elderly with Alzheimer’s disease or an explosive increase in repetitive strain injuries among school children. However, if “one” happens to be a regional government with a limited budget for preventive and proactive initiatives to improve the general well-being of one’s citizens, choices have to be made. It could – just as an example – be to address the previously introduced problem of obesity among children of the ages 10 to 15.
In Denmark, according to the National Health Agency, from being a problem for one out of a thousand children in the 1950s, 10 percent of all children of that age group today struggle with weight problems, and it’s even worse in certain other industrialized countries. So, a problem has been identified – one among many, but one for which there is both public and political support to take a closer look at.
It sounds easy enough to get to that point, but it is not always a road without bumps. To start with, we’re dealing with an area, and we’re still looking at public health, just not to confuse anyone, where there is almost no end to the issues one could potentially address, and where the source of information about dysfunctions, and of opinions about what to prioritize, are plentiful. There is the public opinion, there are health care professionals on all levels – from hands-on experience in care institutions or hospitals to national players such as patient organizations or unions, researchers and lifestyle opinion-makers, media and a range of industries profiting from other people’s problems, from pharmaceuticals to assistive technologies. And just because knowledge exists does not mean that it is easily available or – if it is – that it is trustworthy. In particular, statistical knowledge gathered among civilians is often more a reflection of self-staging than of real life. As an example, a Danish national survey from 2012, developed to map the consumption of cultural experiences and products, showed that the Danes had been to the theatre 9.3 million times during the year. During the same period, the national statistical bureau figures show that 1.9 million theatre tickets were sold – quite exactly 20 percent of what the respondents had claimed. In other words, 80 percent of the respondents, saying that they had been to the theatre in the past year, lied. Probably for a number of different reasons, but the truth it certainly wasn’t.
So, whom do we listen to and what is the quality of the information on which we act? How do we end up with a situation where everyone agrees that the obesity among 10- to 15-year-olds is the right one to focus on? Why not arthritis or diabetes among middle-aged women or ADHD or autism among preschool boys in particular? And how do we feel somewhat reassured that the insights we gather actually reflect the wishes and worries of the whole, selected target group and that they are truly motivated to be part of a solution?
One thing that we never seem to run out of is “wicked problems”12 – problems of such complexity that most solutions would interfere with existing structures and risk creating new and unknown problems of an unknown magnitude. So, the fact of the matter is that the choice of which problem to address is often motivated by a combination of how sturdy the knowledge at hand seems to be, pressure from all kinds of interests and their lobbyists and advocates, and of which problems seem the most realistic to solve within a reasonable time frame and realistic means. In one of his books about public sector innovation, Christian Bason refers to an article by the researcher Gambhir Bhatta in The Innovation Journal, claiming that there is evidence that the more “wicked” or complicated a problem seems to be, the less likely it is that any public sector body will ever run the risks of addressing it.13,14
If we now give ourselves the benefit of doubt and say that we do not always instinctively take the easy way out, and let us assume that both public and private sector managers choose their challenges based on importance, and not on x-factor, then tools to measure importance is necessary, but importance in relation to what? As for the health care sector, importance can be measured in savings on public sector budgets, possible improvements of the life quality, or life expectancy of the individual citizen, what could have been achieved elsewhere with the same resources, and of course, seen in relation to the resources it would actually take.
Already here, it would be beneficial and sometimes decisive to embark on the challenge that a structured and focused analysis is undertaken, where the problem is framed in detail, that the complexity of the situation is unveiled, and where the situation is explored to find out whether this is the real and underlying problem or a symptomatic one, and whether solving another or other related problems could possibly be more effective.
Some approaches, which have proven useful for others, and in the private sector in particular, could possibly also inspire problem-solving processes both in the public and the third sector. One of them is W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s “Blue Ocean Strategy”15 and the other is Clayton Christensen’s “Disruptive Innovation.”16 Both theories deals with finding solutions which do not only solve any given problem, but which are radically different in their outlook, either by finding solutions, where no comparable or parallel references exist, or by solving problems never addressed before.
An often referred-to example is the Canadian Cirque de Soleil, which by eliminating the two biggest cost factors of running a circus – animals and expensive stars – and at the same time, redefining the market from kids bringing their parents to an adult and discriminating audience, revolutionized the entire concept of circus. The two founders, Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier, both previous street artists, now reign over a global brand with an approximate 3,500 staff and a turnover of more than half a billion dollars.
Back to our obesity challenge, we now choose to believe that a thorough analysis exists, as do the best intentions ever, justifying that some kind of action needs to be taken to fight the rapidly growing number of 10- to 15-year-old kids, who are either overweight, severely overweight, or obese. The decision is made, as it – on short term – will contribute to better life quality and less problems related to social relations, inclusion, and bullying for the individual on the one hand, and more pragmatically, to reduced costs due to a decrease in needs for symptom treatment in the primary health care sector, on the other. Moreover, there are long-term medical and health care political arguments to address the problem, partly related to the individual’s lifetime expectancy and partly related to the expectancy of overweight and obese people being a lifelong burden on the public health care system. So, the initiative can be argued both politically, economically, medically, and from a humanistic perspective.
In this particular example, one could imagine that there would be several open questions, such as on which level the most efficient initiatives would be taken and coordinated – whether locally, regionally, or nationally. Let us now assume that this process is anchored nationally after an initiative from the Ministry of Health, and that a certain amount of money has been allocated in the ministry’s budget, while the actual activities in principle can be decentralized and shared between the three levels. I make this assumption because it fits into the rationale of this book, but also because we’re dealing with an issue which probably needs to be addressed on all three levels to deliver successful results, in any case. And because it describes an almost ideal condition to start with such an open mandate, and then, to design the solution from an effectiveness angle instead of what could often be the case – to design disconnected initiatives to fit predefined budgetary and bureaucratic premises.
So, we’re looking at a nationally initiated and financed campaign to “do something about” the fact that more and more kids end up as overweight or obese, and it is still up in the air how we dispose of the budgets at hand. Why is that important? Well, to me, it is because in a Danish context, at least, a grant to regional governments would have meant that the initiative would be anchored and implemented as a health care initiative – that’s what the Danish regions are responsible for – give or take. At least 96 percent of their budgets go to hospitals and other health care facilities. On the other hand, if the initiative were to be anchored locally, the implementation would be developed to take place in schools or youth clubs or municipal libraries, or a combination of the above. And if the grant were to be disposed of and implemented by the ministry itself or the National Health Agency, the result would most probably be another app. It is quite puzzling how many problems we seem to believe that we can solve by either developing another web portal or a website, or – as a more recent alternative – an app. The question is whether “another” digital facility in itself solves anything at all in itself. My best answer to that would be a No.
Of course, the public sector, just like the private sector and NGOs, networks and associations, families and individuals, should take full advantage of the fantastic possibilities that the digital development has given and constantly offers us. According to the Danish Ministry of Economics and Internal Affairs, the public sector in Denmark will save a 120 million Euros annually when the government’s target of 80 percent of the dialogue between the individual and the “system” happens via digital self-service. That is significant and shouldn’t be dismissed. The question, though, is whether the transaction of knowledge or information taking place digitally between the citizen and the system – if it is allowed to stand on its own – serves the intended purpose. In any case, a fundamental prerequisite for embarking on a project of such a magnitude and complexity as any project involving so many parties and concerns on the side of the sender and affecting so many individuals on the side of the receiver is, that one really knows the problem at stake quite intimately.
Framing and Reframing
Framing and reframing are central to this book, as they, seen in isolation, are the most important building blocks, and as a whole, the most significant premise for all subsequent endeavors at delivering against a precisely defined and relevant goal. When the problem has been properly identified, it makes a whole lot of sense to rewind and ask once again, so are we now sure that we are solving the right problem? As Albert Einstein said, it wasn’t that he was so much smarter than others, he just dwelled a little longer on each challenge. It’s not that we go back and ask whether the problem identified really is a problem, but whether it is the most relevant to solve first. There is no question that far too many kids between 10 and 15 weigh too much; whether a little, some, or much too much – it is a problem, and that problem has a range of negative consequences, both short term and long term. The danger is that we start looking for solutions to a problem that is so complex that it cannot be dealt with by doing one thing. The result would be that the response to the problem is the aforementioned app – that’s how you communicate with young people, isn’t it? Or, you end up by dictating more gym classes in the third to seventh grades – physical movement prevents obesity, right? Or, by . . .
Which brings us back to C. West Churchman’s background for introducing the term “wicked problems” – and they can be truly wicked – that any one single solution can solve a singular problem, and at the same time, reinforce or create others.
Framing in this specific context means to take two steps back and look at the phenomenon of being overweight or obesity in all the contexts where it can be observed and contextualized. The problem is mapped, literally, by plotting into a coherent representation all the individual factors, which may have or with certainty have an influence on the existence of this as a problem. Having mapped all these factors gives birth to a number of new questions – questions which need to be dealt with one way or another, through analysis, discussion, or reflection. Is the problem one that can reasonably be seen in isolation? Is it just a symptom of other, even wickeder problems? Should it be dealt with by designating one or a limited number of concrete initiatives or activities, or would it be wiser to dig a little deeper and see if the problem would solve itself or at least be positively affected, provided other and possibly more profound problems are addressed?
In our example, chosen in part because of its wonderful complexity, it almost goes without saying that there are multiple factors causing obesity, both for the chosen age group and for the population at large. One could possibly and quite easily identify at least a handful of determining factors, such as the already indicated level of structured and systematic physical activity and how physical activity in general is stimulated among youngsters. There is the consumption of food and beverages, both with regard to quantity and quality of nutrition. There is the general pattern of activity – not the one that makes you sweat, but just one’s day-to-day behavior. There is the self-esteem and the extent to which the individual is comfortable with him or herself, with friends and family, with school and after-school activities. I guess nobody today would underestimate the correlation between general well-being and the wish to also be able to take care of one’s own body and physique. And then, there is the individual’s understanding of how all these factors play together, of what actually influences on their bodies’ development, and how they can make a difference. And then, of course, there are genetic issues and there are socioeconomic issues.
Where does one start? Where is the most likely return on investment to be harvested? Which cause-and-effect factors are the most conspicuous? When, by the way, is a child overweight and when is intervention needed? How much is caused by the individual’s genes and how much is environmental? What is a result of social and peer influence, and what is a result of the individual’s own social and intellectual disposition? If the bag is opened, there are goodies enough for all and for many interesting project meetings, for several brainstorming sessions, and for hours of desk research. Which, by the way, is good, as it shows that the problem in question is being taken seriously.
Understanding the Problem via Brainstorming, Reflection, and Discussion
The challenge at this point is not to “explode” the problem and sit back with a pile of unrelated fragments and questions, even though a truly coherent picture is too much to ask already now. This is the stage in the process, where the findings so far and the problem as it now stands can be discussed among people with different professional angles and seen through different lenses. Exploring the problem requires a certain amount of fragmentation, but in a manner which contributes to each angle and each fragment pointing toward the same understanding of what the challenge is. Otherwise, it will be impossible to weigh and prioritize all the alternative approaches in the next round.
Giving oneself and each other time to reflect upon and discuss the various parts of the problem complex and any other relevant factors – measured by one or more team members perceiving it as being so – is a fundamental precondition for applying design methodology to a challenge like this. This round is all about opening up and understanding the problem through reflection, brainstorming, and discussions. The same brainstorming methods as many have grown used to in later stages of the process can be applied, such as IDEO’s The Rules of Brainstorming – available at their open web resource, openideo.com. The main principle is that no ideas should be dismissed; there might be an interesting potential in the most surprising input, regardless of whether the source is the CEO or the maintenance assistant in the organization.
Another interesting approach is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.17 This tool revolves around different members of the team taking on different roles in the discussion of a problem – one role at the time – thus being encouraged to activate one’s own both naïve and critical, rational, and emotional angles and concerns. At this stage, the key objective is to get a holistic and comprehensive understanding of the problem, hence also every conceivable angle up on the table, or, rather more often, on the wall. In terms of exploiting this phase to its utmost, it is a good idea to consider whether an external facilitator or moderator should be hired, or whether one has anyone in-house with a sufficiently “neutral” position, and yet, the skills to manage the process. What is important is that all agree on the rules and name of the game, and that the process is managed with deep respect for every single team member, so that it is not a question of whoever shouts the loudest wins the argument.
The time is now right to start mapping and organizing all relevant elements of the problem, which individually have been identified as being possible points of entry to a project or to addressing the overall problem complex. For each element, key stakeholders are identified and relations between individual elements and various stakeholders are mapped. A practical way of dealing with this is to cluster all the post-it notes that you most probably worked with in the past phase (it may be a work-related deficiency on my side, but I take it for granted that one works with post-it notes in the brainstorming phase – as does IDEO, by the way), so that post-it notes with related concerns or related ideas are placed in groups. Having done that, the challenge is to find the internal relations between the angles, how they either support or exclude each other, and then, to do the same with the stakeholder cluster.
As with regard to looking at the internal relations between either the angles or the stakeholder clusters, it can be valuable to look at existing theories and the knowledge we have about networks. Two individuals can have one relation. It can change as time goes by or from minute to minute, but if the relation exists between the two only, there is, in principle, only one relation. Three people can – altogether – have four relations, while four people can have eleven different relations. While you can see the explanation from the model underneath, it doesn’t necessarily explain why this should be relevant here. Well, it is, because the same that goes for people also goes for ideas or problems. By seeing two or three or more problems in combination, new angles will appear automatically, and often angles, which could not possibly be identified by looking at the problems individually. These new angles can be instrumental in getting to the “core” of the problem or to identifying in which combination of problems the most interesting potential for a solution can be found (Figure 3.5).
In other words, if you cluster two problems, you will be able to identify a third problem as a combination of the two. If you cluster three problems, in addition to those, you will be able to see four new problems deriving from the relations between them. And if you cluster four problems, they will spur eleven new combinations, so that you suddenly have fifteen points of view. Five gives 31 in all and six gives a whole lot – just don’t go there. This exercise aims at achieving clarity and precision – not confusion. However, if used wisely, it illustrates, but also helps see through the complexity that a thorough analysis creates, and as a tool to establish a frame of reference for all involved and for everyone to understand the, diversity of approaches to any given problem, it is very valuable – beyond inevitably causing a number of good discussions and food for thought. Just be aware of the fact that this part of the process takes time, and that the process needs to be managed well to make sure that it all doesn’t come to a halt, and that nothing comes out at the end.
In Cooper’s model, the second stage, the one I named “reframing” in the original model called “business case,” a commonly used term in the private sector. As the process I’m describing has a wider scope than a purely commercial one, I have deliberately chosen not to use the term. However relevant both in corporate life and other contexts, where a financial assessment is key, I fear that it could possibly create a barrier, vis-à-vis development communities where the objectives are not regarded as or primarily driven by pecuniary concerns.
As part of “framing” something, at one point – and the time has now arrived – scenarios have to be either approved or dismissed: is this something we want to pursue or not? The price of opening up for as many possible combinations of problems, approaches, and possibilities is that it takes time, and it entails a sometimes delicate process of elimination of otherwise good ideas. The upside is that the problem – after the process of opening up, discussing, and reflecting upon possible approaches – is quite likely a more relevant one than the one you started with, which in turn, is the most significant singular factor for harvesting a better return on investment at the end of the day.
Anyway, choices have to be made. It can be done in many different ways and by engaging many different players. While engaging users has hopefully already been done to the extent possible, at least at this stage, they are an obvious resource. I would invite young people, 10- to 15-year-olds, overweight as well as kids of ideal body mass, parents, and teachers, but also some of those who might already have passed the crucial age we’re focusing on, and who know what it means for studies and career choices to be overweight. Talk to them, let them talk with each other while observing the relations being played out, let them discuss and solve problems together, and let them prioritize and comment on the ideas and scenarios which have been developed so far.
Some project managers would prefer to wait for such direct user intervention until the next phase, but I cannot really see how that should improve the process, except from possibly saving some time. Anyway, at one point before the problem to be solved is finally defined and articulated, relevant stakeholders for whom the problem already is, and its solution or solutions would be of great importance, need to be engaged. Anything else would be close to irresponsible, if you truly believe that having a deep understanding of the problem and of what still needs to be discovered is important to deliver a quality solution.
Making choices at this stage neither means that you choose the only problem to solve or the only solution to pursue. It merely means that we limit the number to one, which is operationally manageable. Based on our mapping and the following analysis of possible problem combinations, a limited number of scenarios – for example, three – is chosen. According to Wikipedia, a scenario is “a possible set of future events,” and according to Webster’s unabridged, “a description of what could possibly happen”. One could also call them “theses.” One thesis could be to address the quality of the food that the young kids have access to at or in the near proximity of the school and the lack of interesting, healthier alternatives. Another thesis could be to address the unsafe conditions and lack of dedicated facilities for pedestrians in the vicinity of the school, prohibiting responsible parents from sending their kids to school on their own, either by foot or bicycle, entailing that the kids are transported to and from school by car. And, a third thesis could be the body- and perfection-focused culture often dominating schools and after-school activities, causing kids who do not see themselves as “perfect” simply give up and devote themselves to computer games, soda pops, and sweets, instead of engaging in competitive, physically demanding activities. There could be many others; these three are quite arbitrarily chosen and merely reflect some of my own observations and possibly lack of knowledge. However, this book is about methodology – not about obesity.
Articulating a Thesis for Which Problem to Solve
The process and the insights gathered both from desk studies and discussions, idea generation, and user engagement sessions may point toward one of the three problems, but they may also point toward two of them or even to all three being addressed as an integrated process. We don’t really know yet, and therefore, need to engage in an exercise to scrutinize and validate the three theses. Most probably, numerous factors speak in favor of, and others speak against each one of the three. Thus, we need to find out exactly which stakeholders each of the three scenarios would involve, and which support a successful resolution would require and which resistance one could expect. Possibly, or ideally, some of these have already been involved in the process thus far, and if so, some of the barriers might already have been taken care of. If not, this is the last call to invite users and other stakeholders to play a meaningful part in the process.
Besides the already mentioned and freely available methods offered by IDEO, there are a lot of interesting tools and methods out there, from which one could draw valuable inspiration. One could, for example, study the acknowledged MIT professor, Eric von Hippel’s idea to democratize innovation by engaging and recognizing users as experts or “lead users,” which is the term that von Hippel uses.18 The Kolding Design School uses the terminology “experts on their own lives,” but the expertise can also be on a more defined and less demanding object than one’s own life. One could use IT amateur geeks to develop new software or amateur chefs to develop new kitchen utensils.
Another question is whether one or more of the scenarios raise conflicts of interest – either vis-à-vis other projects or initiatives or simply others who see things differently. A potential conflict of interest may not be decisive of whether or not to pursue an idea or scenario, but at least it’s valuable to know in advance if it seems likely that you will encounter resistance.
The question of resources will have to be raised: what will the three scenarios require of time, money, and human resources, and does this favor one over the others? Are the right structures and tools in place to pursue anyone of the three scenarios, or will one or more of them require disproportional investments or changes in the organization to be successfully undertaken? Or, could it possibly be that one of the scenarios poses a challenge, which is exactly the opportunity you have been waiting for to make an organizational castling?
Perhaps, already now, one scenario seems to be more realistic or likely to succeed than the two other, or perhaps one of the three scenarios seems to start wobbling.
Choosing “the Right Problem”
Running the risk of repeating myself, the significance of the final solution of the early phases of the innovation process, as described earlier, cannot be underestimated. At the same time, it is of crucial importance that the process – as well as the resources allocated to it – is managed carefully. This might seem like a contradiction. This book is about encouraging allocation of more resources to the early stages of a development project, and yet, on the other hand, a certain degree of providence doesn’t hurt either. In general, the process, as we see it in many technical and commercial “cultures,” has less focus on the problem identification and framing phase than processes influenced by design thinking. However, my points of view are not unknown, as such. In Jonathan Cagan and Craig M. Vogel’s book Creating Breakthrough Products: Revealing the Secrets that Drive Global Innovation,19 which in many ways, builds on the stage-gate principle, focuses much more on the explorative stages. Their process is divided into four stages or rounds: “identifying,” “understanding,” “conceptualizing,” and “realizing” the opportunity, thus actually devoting three out of four stages of the process to what we often refer to as the “front end.”
Getting to the End of Round One
Our fifth element of the first round is to choose which problem to actually solve. While in Cooper’s model, this is done already at the entry gate – before a project exists, so to speak, this clarification makes up a quite significant part of the model I’m referring to, actually the entire first round – which is actually less than in Cagan’s and Vogel’s model, where this part of the process makes up 50 percent of the whole, the two first out of four stages.
Somehow, it would be tempting to use Cagan and Vogel’s model as a starting point, and the reason why I still chose to start from Cooper’s stage-gate and its many offsprings, it is because it is by far better known than the other, but also because it actually accommodates a classic design process much better. I’ll get back to why later.
As of now, we relate to its slightly modified version found at the beginning of this chapter, and according to it, we have reached the second gate – originally entitled “second screen” and often referred to as “project approval” or “interim approval.” We are lagging a little behind, as we’re still focusing on the problem and now ready to articulate the problem we intend to solve. That could, for example, be that after careful consideration, we want to focus on the physical spaces, and how they are being furnished and equipped at schools and after-school activity facilities on the one hand, and the incentives for young kids to engage in physical activity, on the other. This could be one out of two or three highly relevant challenges we could look at, but the one matching our resources better and a challenge resonating with a majority of stakeholders. So now, we are ready to establish a clear-cut and manageable “project,” and thus, also which success indicators to pursue.
Fine-Tuning, Continuous Validation, and Reframing
The next few phases are difficult to distinguish, regardless of which model one tends to prefer, as a certain degree of iteration is inevitable, fine-tuning, validating, or reframing until all vectors point in the same direction, and there is consensus around a reframed and final concept for which problem to solve and by which means. In our example, it means that we have moved from observing a problem – overweight state and obesity in a particular age group – to knowing which situation to address to make the biggest difference to the individuals affected by it.
Reframing and Articulation of a Coherent Concept
In the 1990s, we were all congested by concepts, they were all over the place and meant anything one could imagine, a little like growth and innovation and transformation and flow today. However, the word actually does mean something, and cannot be substituted. It means “a general and unifying idea” for something, which is exactly what it is we need to develop for how to deal with the facilities we offer young kids. If we had known from the beginning that this was what we wanted to look at, we could have discussed solutions with our stakeholders from the outset, but we have invested time and resources to first now – but hopefully with significantly higher precision – being able to describe the project that we’re about to embark upon.
This part of the process is all about challenging our assumptions and preconceptions, to validate whether the problem we all thought was the right one actually also is the most sensible one to solve or whether the problem we saw was a problem in itself or rather just a symptom of any number of other problems. And now, we are actually ready to move into a solution mode, as we know exactly which problem it is that we want to focus on. This is where we make sure that we have all the knowledge and user insights that we need, establish the right team with the most relevant competences and experiences, identify which stakeholders to engage throughout the rest of the process, and allocate sufficient resources to work design-methodically also in the next three rounds, allowing for iterations and continuous fine-tuning of elements, means, and success indicators.
Based on our processing of the original scope and the scenarios coming out of the preliminary stages for how to address the problem of overweight and obesity among 10- to 15-year-old kids, we are ready to address the most “significant” problem: the one which we believe that solving might have the greatest effect in the long term and the greatest potential for creating a shift among already affected users.
At this stage, all involved parties hopefully agree that no stones are left unturned, and are all equally enthusiastic about actually solving the identified problem. What happens now is that we are ready to develop a plan for how it will be solved. In the making of this plan, we benefit from all the knowledge and user insights that we got already in the first round, and it might not even be necessary to involve stakeholders again. The outcome of this round, after all, is not the solution itself, but a “proof of concept” – a thorough evaluation of whether the chosen solution has the potential to be realized, and whether it will solve the problem to a satisfactory degree. And then, we’re ready to head for the next gate.
It seems fair to mention at this stage that proof of concept is used to describe various levels of “proof” – from theoretical models to almost ready for production prototypes. In our case, we use the term to describe a verbal and possibly also visualized concept for a solution, not a close to final and mathematically substantiated model of what our solution is all about. As from now on, referring to our “case” would require much more insight into the user population and how schools and youth facilities are already designed, and as the overall problem of overweight and obesity might possibly be much more effectively addressed by other means, be it what they eat, how social interaction is stimulated, or any other factor, I now leave the age group and specific challenge, before I move onto thinner ice than what good is.
A “proof of concept” can only be signed off by the project owner or whoever has the overall responsibility for the delivery of a solution. To do so, as this person or body has most probably not been intimately involved in the process so far, a relatively precise and unambiguous description of which problem we’re setting out to solve, within which economic and human resources and when delivery can be expected are key elements of the project plan. It also needs to describe how available resources will be allocated and prioritized, which resources are available “in-house,” and which need to be sourced and procured, how and when stakeholders will be engaged, and how and by whom the project will be managed. It can also include how often and in which format progress reports will be made, how and when the project objectives and progress are communicated externally, and how the final solution will be launched. In principle, there’s no limit to what it could include, but as a friendly piece of advice, don’t overdo it; hold on to the privilege of allowing changes as you go along to the extent possible. And at any rate, what matters is that whoever has the mandate to do so, says, “OK, guys, here we go.”
From Proof-of-Concept to an Actual Project Plan
Let’s make a detour from the creative process for just a brief moment or two. Right here, as we now – for the first time – know what it is that we’re aiming for, is, as already indicated, where we will benefit a great deal from developing a detailed plan for the remainder of the design process. Now, as we know “grosso modo” what the challenge entails, there is no reason why we shouldn’t invest some resources in planning the journey step-by-step, define our success criteria and milestones. In terms of what that means specifically for a design project, the most typical format is what we call a “design brief,” a document which serves as a common source of information for internal and external team members, and which, in addition to laying out timelines and resources, also defines the next phases, action by action. There are probably tons of useful templates for a design briefs out there, but in my opinion, a good one also includes a short resume of the process up until now and the background for it, an overall description of how assumptions and limitations with regard to resources, responsibilities, progress, and reporting, but also requirements with regard to preferred competences and methods, internal and external suppliers, and other stakeholder engagements, either preferred or required. This is also where external services are typically procured for the first time, unless external experts have already helped with the framing and stakeholder engagement process. Such external suppliers may include designers or design agencies, strategy and analysis experts, anthropologists and expertise on the specific product, service or activity in question. Help can be requested from NGOs and trade organizations, advisory councils and private sector consultants to identify and choose the most suitable partners and to make sure that the partnership builds on a solid foundation of contracts and expertise.
Before entering into a creative mode, it makes a whole lot of sense to conduct a quick “audit” to make sure that the project is reasonably dimensioned and that it actually supports, unambiguously, the “proof of concept” we have invested so much time and energy in reaching.
Ideation, Stakeholder Iterations, and Prototyping: Toward a Common Point of View
A new project is born – or possibly several, after an unusually long period of labor, some would say – but at least with a clearly articulated goal and with firmly grounded consensus on which means have to be activated to reach it, on which terms, and in collaboration with whom.
We still don’t know the solution, although at this point, all involved parties and every single team player will probably have their own qualified propositions as to where it is we’re heading. Now, the design process, as most people know it, starts, or the development process or change process – both of which are design processes when it comes to it; so from now on, I will refer to it as the design process.
Other, Already Existing Design Process Models
Just like there is an unknown, however quite significant number of project management processes out there, there is no immediate lack of design process models either. However, just like the first category, design processes also look alike and are very often inspired by and related to each other, and actually quite often to the model that I have chosen as a reference.
In general, design process representations will often be circular, or at least somehow indicate a cyclic and iterative movement back and forth between its individual elements, possibly as a reaction to the very often linear process models deriving from the natural sciences, engineering, or business administration. The most extreme interpretation is probably Damien Newman’s “squiggle of the design process,” which I mentioned in the preface of this book. Looking at the more “moderate” models, they often seem to converge and overlap with their linear cousins, and many words and terminologies as well as the underlying logics of the models are often the same – all of which is quite natural. Whether one is trained as a designer, economist, or engineer, it makes sense to visualize a certain progress from a starting point, A to Z, an end, or from a clearly defined point of departure, A to B, a future and more attractive situation. As one of the most quoted design theorists, Herbert Simon has contributed to the discussion of what design is: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.
Also, my choice of reference model has been taken from a source, previously referred to a few times already, the global design firm IDEO – this time, a model, which was introduced in connection with the opening of d-school, an independent institute at Stanford University in 2004, established by, among others, one of IDEO’s founding partners, David Kelley and the founder of the global IT-company, SAP – Hasso Plattner (Figure 3.6).
The reason for my choice is partly because the model – possibly better than any other – by help of its loops visualizes what makes it a design process model and not a stage-gate model, and because IDEO, with all due respect to all other well-known as well as unknown, innovative, and by all means sympathetic design agencies in the world, is the individual design agency which, more than any other, has contributed to move design from the arts and crafts domain and into a process-oriented and ROI-focused reality.
As already mentioned, what characterizes the d-school model are the loops and iterations, which are built into both the process and the DNA of the thinking it represents. The model has a number of qualities and features by which it could replace more traditional development processes. However, as I see it, it has a weakness compared to a stage-gate model in that it lacks the valuable and quite meaningful “feature” that the gates represent – points in the process dedicated to evaluating progress and to either apply the brake or give the green light to embark upon the following stage.
A closer look at the model reveals that it prescribes both reflection and reframing. It starts by understanding the problem and the context it’s part of. The next phase is to observe and establish an unequivocal “point of view” – a starting point for ideation and approaches to how to solve the problem. Here, more than in any other phase of the process, IDEO has refined brainstorming as a methodical tool, where no idea should be kept from being posted on the wall. After the ideation phase, another well-known design approach, prototyping, starts. A prototype is not necessarily something made at the very end of the process, just before starting production or launch. It is, in principle, just a preliminary representation of a product, service, or activity serving to demonstrate and test ideas and where we’re heading at any stage of the development process.
As a matter of fact, prototyping often starts already in the observation phase – even understanding and scoping; at the very front end of the process – simply because designers cannot help themselves. They have, as visual beings, an urge to start sketching and scribbling from the very minute they enter into a conversation or any other situation, and to build small impromptu “prototypes” from paper and chewing gum and saucers and sugar cubes the very minute a coffee break is called. A little further in in the process, when the first really good ideas start resonating around the table, prototyping becomes a formalized part of the process, providing “something” everyone can relate to and discuss as one moves along. It seems quite unique to the design process, as the objective of a prototype is not only to represent “a preliminary version of a product before actual production starts,” but to make meaningful propositions for how to deal with a situation more tangible and understandable – to help all involved parties to see the same – thus an invaluable part of the iterative process. And actually, it fits perfectly into a linear process, as a means to make more qualified assessments when arriving at the next gate.
Eventually, as a final solution approaches, the prototypes will have a degree of “readiness” and finish, which make them suitable for testing in whatever context they are meant to function, thus finally matching the encyclopedic meaning of the word.
A prerequisite to make sure that progress is made from one phase of the model to the next is that the iterations it prescribes are observed. When the observation phase is completed, the outcome is held up against the understanding from the previous phase, adjusted and fed into the next phase, entitled “point of view” in the IDEO model, and repeating the same backward loop every time a new milestone has been reached and to make sure to stay on track. As earlier mentioned, the ideation phase – and in particular if undertaken in the IDEO tradition – will produce a wealth of ideas, good, mediocre, and outright lousy. To determine which ideas are pursued, the “point of view” is used as a guide. If an idea, however interesting, does not resonate with this common understanding and reference, it will only create problems at a later stage, interfering with the process of transforming ideas into a solution or solutions. And in exactly the same way, prototypes are discussed, as they become increasingly advanced and realistic representations of possible solutions, in light of whether they support the point of view or not.
A question which will always cause some discussion is when to start the involvement of users and other stakeholders; for example – is it here? And, obviously, they should be involved in this part of the process, as they would most probably have contributed with valuable knowledge already at the two previous stages, and as they will contribute throughout to the end and beyond. However, at the same time as underestimating the value of stakeholder engagement, it is also important to know the limitations of such engagement. Users engage in the process to represent users resembling themselves, just like other stakeholders reflect the desires and preferences of their peers. Thus, granting such “reps” too much influence on the choice between scenarios and prototyped solutions can be dangerous, and increasingly so as the final result approaches and the differences between alternative solutions are increasingly marginal. The further away from the “overall principles” of how to address an issue and the more detailed the questions asked are, the more likely it is that the stakeholder response represent personal views, rather than those of an entire group or population. Moreover, asking stakeholders to make choices between several solutions resembling each other quite often makes their choices rather arbitrary. The researchers Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University and Mark Lepper from Stanford University20 in a comprehensive study found that there is a direct correlation between the number of alternatives to choose between and the individual’s insecurity in the situation where asked to make a choice. This goes for the groceries, where the number of consumers actually choosing an item is higher where the number of alternatives is limited than where it is endless. It also goes for students, spending much more time on deciding which one out of a long list of essays to write, and experiencing much more anxiety and uncertainty doing it, than those students who are asked to choose one out of three. And finally, American consumers having a wide range of pension schemes to choose between more often fail to actually take out a pension than consumers who are presented with a limited number of alternatives. A qualified choice, in other words, requires that the individual is able to understand and assess all available alternatives on an equal basis. If such an overview is perceived as too demanding or time-consuming, the choice made is often arbitrary, which is dangerous, or – even more likely – the individual proves unable to make a choice.
A Few Words on von Hippel’s Lead User Model
Another popular reference in the design community is the previously mentioned Lead User Model, developed by Erik von Hippel, and his theory that the most interested and dedicated users are the most valuable experts of whatever challenge we’re facing. The thinking assumes that the lead users are users, whose visions of what an ideal solution would be today represent what a broader and more mainstream market will demand months or years from now on. Since lead users already possess often detailed knowledge about something, which for most people belongs to the future, they are valuable “futurists” and forecasters within their specific field of interest. Besides, lead users have often attempted at solving problems or improving on the existing, which means that they might already have developed valuable concepts, which can be fed into the development cycle at a rather early stage (Figure 3.7).
So, the morale is that the users, whether labeled lead users or experts on their own lives, or who from any other background are chosen as stakeholder representatives, will guide and unlock the door to valuable knowledge, which can inspire progress and possible solutions, but that does not necessarily mean that they are the right ones to ask when making decisive choices. It might sound like a paradox, as that’s what we’ve done for generations in the form of focus groups, who were confronted with an x number of alternatives – from new soda pop flavors to new corporate logotypes. But here, we need to remember that the focus group confrontation was often – more often than not – the first time ever that users or other stakeholders were invited into the process, and alas, all too often, too late.
Giving Form and Shape to the Solution
Even the most hard-headed among us can sometimes get confused by the ambiguity of words we use all the time. Design is one of the richest, measured by meanings and interpretations and by colloquial use. I made up my mind already when starting on this book that I will not open the semantic discussion once again. I need, however – for the sake of understanding the models used – clarify which short and utterly incomplete definition I lean up against; a representation of what a material or immaterial solution will appear, which needs it will fulfill, and how it can be realized.
In the original version of the stage-gate model, the fourth phase covers testing and validation. So does ours, except from the fact that testing has taken place continuously throughout the process up until now, and in particular, throughout the last phase. And the validation, we took care of up-front; in fact, we already know for sure that we’re pursuing the right end goal.
Thus, our fourth round is called “detailing and design” – still referring to the already cited and not entirely unproblematic definition. We know that the entire process from beginning to end is one coherent design process, but now, we’ve reached what “everyone else” calls design; the chosen solution will be given its final form and appearance. All the details and the actual experience of it; the emotional as well as visual and tactile aesthetics of the solution we ask someone to embrace will be worked with in detail.
Just like in the previous chapter, I do not dare indicate what the solution to the overweight and obesity problem would be, but no matter which choices were made, this is where we make sure that the solution appeals to the target group, speaks their language, and resonates with their cultural references, and where we make sure that it is perceived as “cool” or “tight” or “fresh” or whatever, we grown-ups would call attractive, is called in the school-yards nowadays.
Also now, at this quite late and irrevocable stage of the process, we want users and other stakeholders to be part of the process, but not necessarily for the same reasons as earlier. As I will revert to, designers and other experts are likely to be deeply immersed in making sure that their professionalism is given a fair chance, restricted as they have been by stakeholder influence until now, so it needs to be quite explicitly laid out in the project plan how users and others are engaged stage by stage – also here, approaching delivery. If a user or stakeholder centric approach has been chosen from the very offset, there is no plausible reason why this fundamental assumption should suddenly be discarded. If one is not ready to deal with their presence until the bitter end, another strategy should be chosen from the beginning. But again, make sure that they are asked to have an opinion where it matters, and not where it merely reflects their own taste.
The Final Phases
It’s a deliberate choice from my side to focus more on the earliest phases of the innovation process, rather than the more operational development phases and implementation. My concern is how we identify the right problem and how we choose among different angles and approaches, which could all, theoretically, create value by being pursued, how we develop possible scenarios through collaborative efforts, and finally, how we formulate the most effective solution to a precisely formulated challenge.
And yet, I will take us through to the end of our process, not to leave it hanging in the air. In the original stage-gate model, this stage is called “launch” – after having passed a gate called “go to launch” – which, as a digression, always reminds me of the signs hanging in shop-windows, on one side saying “open”, and on the other, “gone for lunch.” Launch is a relevant term when introducing a new product in the marketplace; we know it, for example, from events such as the Apple launches of new or modified product versions. However, as our context could just as well be the rolling out of an organizational change or rebuilding a facility for a public service – or the service itself – or the implementation of any other material or immaterial solution, our last gate is simply called “GO” – as in go or no-go. Hopefully, that is open enough to accommodate the outcome of any development process, from a process in its own right, via business models to new or improved products, services, or activities – or, for that matter, a new app.
In any case, the activity following the “go” in itself ought to be seen as a development process in itself, observing the difference from the third stage, that now, we need to understand a context or market or audience, as opposed to understanding what the problem is. But the principle is the same; a common point of view needs to be established for who this audience is and what it will require of support for it to be adopted. This means new rounds of brainstorming, ideation, and sorting among ideas, prototyping and choice of strategy to ensure uptake, and just as for the development process itself, it is important to engage the right people – experts as well as diverse stakeholders – and to make sure that the significance of, and the time and resources needed to undertake this crucial part of the process is not underestimated.
I have leaned up against two models until now, Cooper’s Stage-Gate model and d-school’s design model, as separate and as products originating in two individual and quite different professional disciplines. I have also referred to de Mozota’s important work to integrate design as a methodological element within a framework, which is partly inspired by Cooper’s model and partly by other management and development theories. I have also mentioned that many corporations have developed their own methods based on some of the same sources, such as LEGO, which is among the largest individual users of design professionals and design services in Scandinavia, working with their own innovation model in parallel with the classical stage-gate model.
Based on my studies of these models and countless examples of how organizations work with design, as well as on my own contribution to developing a design management framework for the public sector, topping more than a decade of working with designers and as part of the international design and innovation community, I have ventured into merging my own interpretation of the two models into one representation, which will hopefully come across as a source of both clarity and new inspiration.
I find it interesting that by scanning the hundreds of development process models you can find by a simple Google search, it is quite easy to determine, just by the look of it, whether it stems from a so-called creative consultancy, such as a design agency or architectural firm, a communication agency, or an agency rooted in the management consulting or engineering industries. Both the visual language used and the terms chosen will very often reveal a model’s origin.
Thus, I have made an effort, and choose to see it as a quality in its own right, that my own representation, the INNOLITERACY model, can be traced to and embraces both management theoretical and design empirical elements (Figure 3.8).
The model might, in itself, not be a breakthrough or a game-changer, to the extent that many organizations already work according to it; however, most of them do so unknowingly. What justifies its right to be published is that it structures the iterative processes in a manner which releases the potential of design thinking and methodologies throughout the process, supporting the postulate that it contributes to minimizing risks, and at the same time, fits perfectly well into a linear project management tradition, focusing on progress and meticulous management of time and resources.
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