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From Design Team to Team Design

By Uli Mahle

Design teams are everywhere. All include talented, bright, and innovative engineers. All have software and technology to improve innovation, engineering, and production. All are under pressure to innovate and deliver new ideas and products. Having all these elements, however, does not always guarantee great designs, innovative products, or great engineering. In fact, a 2006 survey by Boston Consulting Group reported that while 72 percent of companies surveyed regarded innovation as one of their top three goals, 48 percent reported that they were dissatisfied with results over the last 12 months.

Why is innovation regarded as unsuccessful in so many cases even by companies who find it central to their existence? The survey cites the lack of measurable innovation metrics as the source of this disconnect. The report admits that innovation is far more difficult to measure than top-down management campaigns aimed to improve efficiency (i.e., downsizing, cost-cutting, or shorter design timelines). But innovation metrics itself smacks of innovation-on-demand an overriding need to innovate regardless of the problem at hand. In real life, this is not how successful innovation happens.

In Evan I. Schwartz’s book Juice The Creative Fuel that Drives World-Class Inventors, the author tracks the way products have been invented over the last century. I recommend this fascinating book for any manager trying to understand and encourage innovation. These stories illustrate that failure is part of the process, experimentation and investigation is a stronghold, and that it can take years for an innovation to be realized.

One aspect becomes clear: abstract metrics for innovation are incredibly difficult to nail down. The need for discovery and exploration of an idea simply does not match up with managerial yardsticks. Management clings to metrics to allocate time and money for creating a new product on demand and under a defined timeline. Innovations, however, are most often the result of trial and error, of iterative learning, and sometimes of working with a bad idea until it leads to a good one.

Failure may seem like the complete opposite of a manager’s expectation, although it is really just a necessary part of the inventor’s learning curve. The process of trying different alternatives helps designers identify barriers in their path. The discovery process forces inventors to dig deeper into their knowledge and experience; to regroup and pursue the opportunity again from a fresh perspective. Failure in these terms is not failure at all.

In talking to the companies we serve at CoCreate, I try to discern what it is that makes their team successful where others fail. It can be defined as Team Design.’ In all design teams who have stumbled upon profitable innovation, certain commonalities emerge. Designers are not stifled by narrow focus on a single product, but are engaged in a variety of projects; they get honest feedback from users and share opinions and ideas with other members of the team; they are free to explore avenues, learn from failure, and are allowed to iterate working concepts.

While design-centric companies often hang their corporate image on the word innovation,’ a closer look reveals that their processes, software systems, and demands from management lock designers into a rigid structure with no leeway for the elements of Team Design described above. Innovation can be an empty rhetorical gesture, or if properly understood, it can be a guiding principle in the development of quality products.

The more we learn about how innovation takes root and grows within a design environment, the better we can form the technological infrastructures and business systems that foster the ecology of Team Design.

Uli Mahle is vice president of marketing and product development for CoCreate Software. You can send an e-mail about this commentary to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.

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