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leadership lab

Brian Moelich

Founder and CEO of Arrisio, an innovation strategy and implementation firm based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

Adopting a design-thinking approach within an organization to reconsider old processes and develop new customer-centric products and services is not a new concept. What is new is that organizations pursuing this path are creating an even more daunting problem than the ones they were hoping to solve.

Organizations are becoming idea generators and not idea executors.

Design thinking is like mayonnaise. It goes well with almost everything, but it alone can't be the star. You need to make your ideas compelling enough to be put on the road to execution. From my experience helping organizations build innovation capabilities, these are the practices you'll need – on top of design thinking – to become an idea executor.

Learn about your organization's needs and problems, just as you would your customer's

Design thinking is grounded in the principle of knowing your customer's needs and problems and then generating solutions to deliver on them. The sad truth is that creating ideas based on your customers alone is just recreating the problem of developing ideas in a vacuum that you wanted to get away from in the first place. Your ideas will only be executed if they solve organizational challenges and align to your company's strategic vision.

As you learn about your customers, you need to explore in tandem what I call "stakeholder discovery." Figure out what lines of business could potentially benefit from your idea and interview the business unit leaders like you would a customer. What challenges are they working on, and most importantly, what are their strategic priorities, i.e. what does the future hold for their business and how will they get there?

When you get into idea generation and prototyping, consider how the idea aligns to strategy and whether it tackles problems of interest to stakeholders. Doing so gives your idea buy-in at the onset, which in turn makes it relevant to the organization.

Give your organization the data it's looking for

Organizations root out anything that looks, sounds or smells like risk and have built processes and layers of decision-making to remove uncertainty. Unfortunately, your ideas are risky, because the outcome is uncertain.

Consider how you would regularly present a business case. There is typically some data to argue that your case is worth the organization's time, an explanation of the end goal and a road map of how you will get there. Your organization expects to see these things, so give them what they're looking for.

Show the rigour behind your ideas by outlining the steps and activities within those steps. Determine what success looks like at each step, define metrics to measure progress and track them meticulously. Explain the customer and market data that you gather for validation and how that data is used for decision-making to evolve the idea.

Being transparent about your process and showing data to back up the relevance of your concept shows the organization that you've mitigated risk involved in what might seem like an out-there idea.

Think about your idea as a business

The biggest failure of design thinking is the focus on getting to ideas and not how those ideas turn into businesses. As you progress through your design-thinking process and prototype the idea, prototype the business as well and test it alongside the idea with customers and stakeholders.

Start with the aspects of the business that the customer sees. Specifically, where and how will they buy your idea, and what are they willing to pay for? Will you sell online or through a brick-and-mortar store? Ask yourself what value your idea provides that the customer would pay for? From there, is it a one-time sale, an ongoing subscription or another revenue model?

When you share your idea with the customer, test the business by presenting the idea as it would live in the real world. Use an online store mock-up or run a retail pop-up to test how your customer wants to acquire the idea and set a price to test willingness-to-pay. As you iterate the idea based on feedback, do the same with the business.

Now take it a step further and determine what capabilities you need to deliver your idea. For example, if your organization typically sells through brick-and-mortar retail but your customers are drawn to online shopping experiences, you will need the resources to develop a digital store.

Look to your organization's existing capabilities for what you can leverage and identify gaps in what needs to be built. When you identify a capability gap, test whether it is better to build a solution or to partner with a third party that has the skills you need. This will uncover potential costs or challenges in developing that organizational capability.

Integrating these practices will give the mayonnaise of design thinking the added ingredients it needs to move beyond idea generation to idea execution.

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