Corinne Fenech

Innovation Consultant and Trainer,

The Time to Innovate is Now

Thursday 11th June 2020

We are creatures of habit and long for our comfort zone. Yet, we all know that growth happens outside of our comfort zone. So right now, is the time to grow. Right now, is the time to re-think our business models and ensure that we, as a business and as a society move forward and not retract backwards into what we termed as our comfort zone.

In this article, I would like to share with you some thoughts about innovation at a time of rapid change, with a strong belief that we are learning the valuable lesson of what it means to be, not just individuals and part of our own business, but part of society as well as global citizens.

Right now, is the time to go back to the roots and understand; what is the purpose of our business?  Not the money-making part. That should be a vital by-product of our purpose and of our contribution to society. The more our sector has been hit, the more important it is to re-invent ourselves and the more opportunities for innovation are available to us.

Whilst before we were busy pushing the products we wanted to sell; a big shift has been happening.  Customers’ values, needs and demands are changing. The current situation has only precipitated this change, but we were always heading this way.

If you find yourself wondering from where to begin, I would like propose Design Thinking as a method of innovation that is very adapt for this time. 

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking shatters the mistaken idea that creativity is reserved for the very few who possess the gift.

Design Thinking is a method of innovation that stemmed from Stanford University in the 1980’s and is in current use by many of the giant organisations like Airbnb, Netflix and Dyson, to name a few. Despite its many variants and attributed names, design thinking is made up of five core stages; empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.  Let’s go through them one by one.

Stage 1: Empathise

Empathy is as old as humankind, yet in business we often overlook this fundamental trait.  As the American Economist and Professor Theodore Levitt explains “People don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill. 

They want a quarter inch hole.” Thus, in the first stage we understand what the quarter inch hole for our customers is. If you think you know your customers well enough, it’s time to let go of your biases and start afresh. Have a conversation with your customers.   

Remember that if your customers know you well enough, they may at first discuss your products as opposed to their needs. So, the trick here is to dig deeper and go to the root of the problem.  In other words, don’t settle for the drill, get to know your customer and dig deep enough until you find the hole. You may be in for big surprises but, don’t shy away from what you find.

Stage 2: Define

Now you know who the customer is, and what is their basic need.  Next, define the problem you will try to solve.  It is important to note that this stage does not entail problem solving but problem definition.  Through the knowledge gained from the client as well as an attentive eye for detail, this is the time to write a clear problem statement.  

The problem statement should be detailed enough to contain all the elements, concise enough to be impactful and clear enough to be understandable. For those of us who are usually problem solvers, we need to be aware of not hinting in the direction of a particular solution. Our opinion may undermine the whole process and kill creativity. This step ends with clear problem statement that balances detail with conciseness.

Stage 3: Ideate

This is the time to get creative! Let’s get as many broad ideas as possible, which focus on solving the problem statement. If you are going to base ideation on the usual suspects, you will get the usual ideas.  The trick here is to get as many people involved, from as many different areas, as possible.  Allow people to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas, but in a short span of time, and put their mind at rest that no idea is stupid whilst there are no hierarchies in the room. 

This way people can express themselves freely.  From a leader’s perspective this takes eating humble pie, as leaders our ideas are not always the best ones and when it is one of the junior team members who comes up with a brilliant one, we shine if we enable that idea, not if we kill it. Now that we have a big pot of crazy ideas, next comes the part we are best at, in our traditional business models - killing ideas. But we do it differently. We kill the ideas that will not bring anything new to the table, and we keep ideas that truly provide the customer with the solution to the problem.  Keep one idea or very few ideas that make the cut to the next stage.

Stage 4: Prototype

Here, ideas come to life. Take the ideas which have been filtered through the previous step and prototype. This means making a small model of the idea.  Some people may use cardboard, drawing, children’s craft items, whilst there are also some good apps if technology is your thing.  The idea of prototyping is simple, it helps make the idea a reality and as we are struggling to bring that idea to life, we also realise which parts of it do not work, so we modify immediately.

Stage 5: Test

Prototype in hand, we test it with customers.  This is also a challenge for many businesses who still operate in the traditional waterfall method.  We tend to try keeping our weaknesses to ourselves, go out there with the best product on earth and ensure that we convince as many people as possible that it is flawless.  But design thinking challenges us to discuss our weaknesses with customers so that we can do better and be better. We test a good, but not perfect prototype with customers, ask them if this prototype can solve their problem, get feedback and reiterate until it is the product that really solves the problem statement. This way we learn fast without a lot of investment.

Creating the Innovative Culture

As you can see, design thinking is creativity in five relatively simple steps.  But it’s not in the methodology that we usually fail but in creating an innovation culture. When we try to deploy any method of innovation with the same old mentality of witch hunts and silos we are bound to fail. Bluntly put, it is the lipstick on the pig metaphor. So, two final points:

-If we truly want to foster innovation, we need to accept that some things work, and others don’t, and the trick is discovering afresh what it is that works and what doesn’t.  We need to fail smartly, by not investing too much time and money in the idea until we see that it works.

-We need to let go of the beloved silos.  You know the ones where everyone thinks they are a victim of but not a perpetrator of.  One of the tricks to break down silos is encouraging co-creation through cross functional teams.  These teams’ main aim is one; finding a solution to the quarter inch hole, together.

This time right now is either a blessing or a curse. It all depends on the actions each one of us takes.  Together, let us work towards being better individuals, business leaders, society members and global citizens whilst focusing on leaving a positive mark, whichever path we choose to take.

Corinne Fenech is an Innovation Consultant and Trainer at She specialises in Customer Experience, Employee Development and Sustainability, and is a PhD researcher in Management with the University of Glasgow.