You Can't Innovate If You Ignore Your Real Problems

Struggling companies often look to momentary design solutions, but, Ziba's Sohrab Vossoughi warns, they won't succeed unless they embrace internal change.

In 2008, my design consultancy, Ziba, was invited to conduct a five-day workshop with the executives of one of the world's leading consumer electronics manufacturers. The CEO told us the company wanted to use design thinking to be more innovative. After decades of competing on cost and efficiency, a growing legion of competitors had forced it into a commodity role. Despite a large internal design group, their brand had little to differentiate it for consumers.

A team of our designers and strategists put its heart and soul into this workshop, digging deep into the details of innovation strategy and consumer research, and giving example after example of how to create a meaningful user experience. After a week of intense exploration and discussion, the executives thanked us heartily. They then went back to doing business precisely as they had before.

Clients often expect instant innovation, without changing anything else.

This outcome is depressingly common, not just for Ziba but for any organization that seeks to build innovation capacity in businesses. The clients in this example are masters of efficient production, making incremental improvements to their product line every year as they steadily lose market share. But they expected a seminar to give them the sudden capability to innovate, without changing any other part of their business practice. It doesn't work like that. An innovation consultancy cannot turn you into an innovative company.

Innovation requires three things: identifying what to do, figuring out how to do it, and assigning the task to the right people.

A sound innovation strategy achieves the first of these, but the other two are matters of corporate culture — the management structures, reward systems, and development processes that make a company what it is on the inside. Designers almost never get to touch that. There are consultancies that do, but they're something else entirely: management consultants, institutional change agents — the people you go to when you're at the end of your rope. Under these circumstances, a company may agree to rethink its core assumptions, but this is a very different expectation from the one we're met with as designers.

In light of this reality, often the best thing a consultancy can do is make sure the strategy it's proposing is as appropriate to the client as possible. It's a research-and-insight problem but focused on the company rather than the consumer. When we begin a new relationship, clients are often surprised to learn that we want to investigate them just as intensely as their users. Many suggest dropping this step from the process. But while nearly everyone agrees that it's crucial for a company to know its customers, we've found through long experience that it's just as important for it to know itself. A design solution that's inappropriate to the company's culture and capabilities is as doomed as one that doesn't accommodate the user.

Fortunately, the tools used to form insights about these two groups are quite similar. Interviews, group brainstorms, observation, and secondary research all play a part and are used on both client and consumer with equal intensity. In many cases, this two-headed research process reveals insights that overlap beautifully, allowing us to develop a strategy that's both meaningful to the consumer and executable by the company.

When root problems aren't solved, you only get momentary innovation.

But in many cases, researching the client produces a more painful insight: That this is a company with structural obstacles to the innovation they're looking for and little interest in removing them. When we encounter this situation — and it happens often — it poses a difficult problem. On the one hand, we've been hired to deliver an innovation strategy, something that we're capable of doing. On the other hand, experience tells us that the solution, no matter how finely tailored to our client's capabilities and culture, is in real danger of failure.

What usually results is a momentary innovation. Like Motorola's Razr or Dell's Adamo laptops, this is a brief departure for a company not normally known for user-centered innovation. It enjoys a period of heightened sales and media attention, then fades away as the company returns to its familiar efficiency-driven state. Though temporarily successful, this is not the fundamental shift in innovation capacity that our clients are asking for.

There can be an unexpected long-term benefit, though. As with people, constructive self-transformation of a company begins with self-knowledge, and it's hard to gather this from the inside. The majority of our work comes from repeat clients, because we put enormous effort into understanding what makes each of them unique and communicating it to them.

Many of our most innovative clients didn't begin that way, nor can we take credit for changing them. What we can take credit for is painting them an accurate picture of who they are so that when they decide to create the shift themselves, they have a clear picture of where they're starting from and the effort it will take to transform. You might call this outcome the ?accidental innovation effort?: an innovation-enabling awareness that wasn't sought out by the client but in many cases is exactly what they needed.

[Top image by RKHawaii]

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  • Rick Kennett

    Sohrab Vossoughi pretty much nailed it in this article. The seeds for innovation may be found through out most organizations. Frequently plentiful and powerful, but they are rarely sown in a culture where dominion is defined by an organizational chart, and positions of power are secured through compliance and control. These organizations will move only as rapidly as the slowest manager allows. i.e. innovation of  product, service or process happens only through permission, not through agreement. I believe what Sohrab is suggesting is that through organizational discovery we can find the 'natural order' inherent in all organizations. The network of process deliverables that exists in every organization and extends throughout the enterprise. A network of deliverables that allows process owners that are familiar with one another, speak in similar terminology, collaborate and agree on innovation. Change and improvement with no or minimal intervention. Process discovery, without corresponding empowerment yields little. Enabling and empowering the process owners in a network of deliverables replaces the constraints of command and control with the agility and order one finds in nature. But it ain't easy. Given the fact that this sort of change requires the organization essentially self destructs and hope for resurrection it isn't likely to happen all that often. Everyone wants to go to heaven, no one wants to die. The folks populating that organization chart will be shaken from power, unless of course, there is a plan for dealing with the disruption.The bottom line is that if the organization is strong, good values, vision and purpose, it will all work. Wonderfully.

  • Lisa Jackson

    Really great observations and understanding of what can block sustainable innovation.  We know from our work that  culture change works best when kept small just as it does in nature where evolution works. In nature it’s a series of tiny, almost imperceptible changes, sometimes with a tsunami-like shot of big change. Tackle one small change that matters at a time, in a way that is digestible – such as getting everyone to fully understand the vision and strategy of the company. (by the way, this is proven as the #1 way to impact culture to improve performance).

    We also find that the reason most change initiatives fail is that leaders perceive them as huge sea changes that are overwhelming. 

    Our manner of small changes results in shifts that adjust the course leading to change, but not shock.

  • s.point design

    Thanks for the interesting article. You hit on a big frustration consultancies face. Thing is, it is difficult for a company to change the way they think and operate entirely if it wasn’t set up right to be innovation driven in the first place. However, what if innovation consultancies can do more to help clients realize ideas one by one, thus helping them become more innovative step by step? Too often I’ve seen brilliant creative ideas from consultants proposed that are just not feasible. Or sometimes, the clients just have no idea where to start after they get receive the proposal.

    One way we do it is by employing engineers and people with manufacturing background so that we can incorporate feasibility check or consider production solutions early on in the process. By continuously involving clients in discussions on how to realize the idea (technically, marketing strategy, etc.), there’s a better chance for key people from client side to be identified early on, the go-to person from R&D, marketing, senior management, etc. Once the key people have ownership together, the better chance the idea is turned into reality. After a few successful innovations, hopefully the client will catch on to the essence of being more innovative, and gradually implement change internally.

  • Christopher Seid

    Loved this article. Syncs with my observations having worked both inside and as a consultant for many medium to large organizations: "It's the culture, stupid!" This is the hardest thing to change but also the most essential if a company is going to embrace true, authentic, substantive innovation. Many leaders don't want to touch culture because a) it can't be quantified, b) it can't be made part of "efficient production" and c) it requires hard work. 

  • jbondre

    The one thing I have observed that is consistent with all organizations of any significant size, is that for every decision, or process, there are hundreds of small details or decisions that are made, relatively arbitrarily.

    When concentrating on larger initiatives, we need to glaze over some of the details, and trust people are smart enough to fill in the blanks.

    While people are generally smart enough to fill in the blanks, some of those blanks are filled in wrong, and become habit.  When a lot of bad habits build up, then the whole organization starts to struggle.  Its why there is always hundreds of little inefficiencies that need to be adjusted to solve a greater problem.

    In business there are boulders, and pebbles.  You will be judged by how well you move the boulders, but it is how you move the pebbles that will leave your legacy.

    If the hastily made small decisions, and big issues will fall into place.


  • Nelson Ivan Petzold

    In total agreement with your article "You Can't Innovate If You Ignore Your Real Problems",
    below is part of a lecture I gave to product design students in Porto Alegre, Brazil, some decades ago, about a project of modulated kitchen furniture we made for an important accordion factory back in 1967. They were having bad times with sales due to the arising musical "plugged" wave. So they wanted to change.
    To the students I insist to say:
    "The managers gathered enough courage to change and, more importantly, to take measures to execute the changes. It´s very common that the desire to change frequently perishes right in the beginning - the lack of determination to do it.
    It happens that something much more important than just the decision is needed: it's necessary a change much more difficult, inside the involved people's head.
    People have to change so that an industry can use a new technology, produce a new line of products or even a new posture facing the market.
    In brief, those managers had enough vision to sense that their renowned product was in decline, had enough courage and determination to change, but also to assimilate new technologies, and to face a totally new market, demanding new sales structure."
    The project was a success: today, after more than 40 years, Todeschini Furniture is one of the major furniture manufacturers in Brazil, actuating in domestic and international markets.
    Their determination did it!

  • Ancil Callender

    Innovation def. is a Culture thing and those who 'drive' the culture of the organisation are the ones who need to live and think it, that way it can permeate through the organisation. For any organisation to be / become innovative they have to almost become an "Organism" where there is growth, life, change, adaptation and all the likes of an Organism inclusive of risks, failing often & fast and learning from those failures to improve their product / service offering. 

    There is also the option of creating your own space (ex. Apple) where competition doesn't yet exist and force them to play by your rules...There is no quick solution but:  No change = No Profits

  • Josh Freeman

    I imagine every design consultant could populate pages of comments on this subject. Big companies are like huge ships that are difficult to turn. Certainly one (even one long, brilliant) innovation session won't do it. When you look at a company like Apple, it's all culture. Its innovation is deeply rooted, and occurs at every level within the company. It's rewarded, even lauded. 

    I'm sure that's the case at Ziba, whose work I've admired for a long time (and whose clients' products I've even helped market!). But an innovative culture can't be  slapped on top of company whose priorities are solely manufacturing efficiencies, incremental improvements, and the avoidance of some serious risk-taking.

  • Jonathan Hall

    Sohrab's analysis of major structural obstacles seems spot on. Execs do not suddenly become innovation executors. What’s he describing is a wholistic approach. As an outside consultant, I remember one innovation session in particular with a huge corporation heavily invested in having people learn their multi-million dollar innovation process. After a particularly robust session, I debriefed the session leader, clearly a trained innovation specialist, only to hear that the executives and staff present (most of whom might be better labeled cost-oriented, efficiency experts) would most likely never incorporate the discussion into an action plan, or impact existing product development. It had been, simply put, an exercise in innovation. And this was not a single incident.

  • Sohrab Vossoughi


    Dear Daniel

    Thank you for your direct comments. It seems that you are well
    aware and capable of what it takes to do innovation, or any other tasks, in
    those regards. However, if you read the article more carefully, you will
    notice that the article is not about how to innovate.  It is about how to change the culture of a
    company to become more (user centered) innovative.  That is what we have been asked to help
    companies with many times during the last decade. 

    The truth is we cannot change
    the culture of a company to become more innovative. We can help them define the
    “What” (the innovation that is relevant and valued by the users/consumers). But the “Who”
    and the “How” are the other two ingredients that need to be considered in order
    to deliver on that defined innovation consistently.  It might be obvious to you and to many
    others, but it is not as easy to consider all the three ingredients and change
    them.  Hence the lack of innovation
    culture and the constant need for change.  Unfortunately, many design and innovation firms
    make the promise of this change to clients and the results have been less than
    desired.  It is always the simple things
    and ideas that are hard to do.  Including
    telling the truth.


  • Daniel Philipson

    This article is ridiculous. Ziba has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. "Innovation requires three things: identifying what to do, figuring out how to do it, and assigning the task to the right people." Really? This comes from a company that prides themselves of showing case-studies. Very Funny! 

  • JDA

    Grow pretty tired of these articles... some people are just suit wearing, jabber monkeys... accept it. What I will point out (and this seems to be forever overlooked) is how annoyingly disorganised  and unprofessional many designers can be, without any understanding of how business models in driving actual sales and profit must be correctly applied. Two sides to every story.