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.

You Can’t Innovate If You Ignore Your Real Problems

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]

About the author

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1956, Sohrab Vossoughi moved to the United States in 1971. After studying mechanical engineering for three years, he switched to study industrial design.