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Five myths about making great design ideas happen

Jo Lowndes, senior strategist for innovation at creative agency Rufus Leonard, looks at the reality of idea generation in design.

This spring heralds the release of Sprint from the Google Ventures’ design team, a book that claims to help “solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days.” Innovation is famously hard, but the book challenges some key myths, ensuring ideas make it beyond the initial brainstorm.

1. Too busy to innovate right now

With targets and objectives set against business as usual, it can be difficult to find time to develop new products or services that will make a genuine difference to consumers’ lives. The important is always trumped by the urgent. However, it is a big risk to the long-term health of the business to let innovation fall by the wayside.

Time-boxed efforts present a way around this. They are an intense, but very short-term commitment to step outside the day-to-day and focus solely on creating amazing new experiences for your customer.

2. Don’t let unpolished design out the door

The book includes many case studies, one of which is from a company called Savioke which provides robots to the services industry. Savioke piloted and room service robot with Starwood hotels and used the Sprint process to finalise its design. Within three weeks the robot was in full service at the hotel.

The Sprint prototype was programmed from an old laptop and a PlayStation controller, while its “face” was a slide on an iPad. It could perform just one task, but this was enough to find out how guests would react to a robot delivering room service. It was the minimum necessary to learn how to proceed.

End users are the oxygen of product development – absolutely critical to progress. A cardboard mock-up, a series of Keynote slides or even a sketched storyboard can all be enough to spark discussion and gain feedback. It may feel uncomfortable sharing unfinished goods, but in holding back you starve yourself of this oxygen. Prototyping is a time to learn, not a time to impress.

3. Bring people together and the ideas will flow

While collaboration is critical, simply inviting a number of tired and stressed colleagues to brainstorm together does not tend to bring about collective genius. Extroverts shout loudly while others plan what to say next.

To be true to the purpose of a brainstorm, we need to ensure that the different perspectives in the room are properly heard so they can be collided and built upon. Sprint suggests an initial presentation of expertise during which participants actively listen. They formulate “How Might We…?” questions to return to later, ensuring that ideas are built on expert insight.

Extroversion is taken out of the equation as the process alternates between solo work and group sharing, ensuring everyone has time to consider their ideas and everyone is heard. Because the whole point of brainstorms is that no one person has all the knowledge.

4. Consensus is a must

You will develop the strongest ideas with those who are aren’t afraid to challenge you. Not rubbish your goals, but spark healthy debate and surface potential weaknesses. We call them the “loyal dissenters” – these are the people you want on board. You don’t need people who will agree every step of the way.

Faced with a choice of ideas it is not important for everyone to favour the same one. What matters is for everyone to have offered their perspective. The Sprint process remains clear-sighted about the importance of the ultimate decision makers at an organisation. It uses their role to the team’s advantage, ensuring that good ideas don’t get lost or conflated. Known as “The Decider”, this person listens and then makes the final decision on which idea to progress. This way ideas don’t have to be merged or tamed – the strongest is taken forward and tested. Consensus is compromise.

5. You won’t get it past the boss

There will be plenty in the day job keeping the boss awake at night. Getting their attention with your new idea can be a real challenge. Why should they invest and what is it anyway? At Rufus we focus on getting visual quickly. Showing someone a video, a mock-up or even a picture of your idea has a vastly better chance of getting them on board than even the finest elevator pitch.

Designing a new product or service does not have to mean major investment, nor months of planning. Visual, time-boxed and collaborative processes can kick-start the creative process with near-immediacy, and on a shoestring.