Design Top-Down & Outside-In


“How should I navigate the corporate pressure and politics in your fight for design thinking?”

I’ve dealt with this issue across a broad swath of large, prominent companies. Bottom-up design thinking, absent leader advocates, promotes deeper understanding of customers, and grave frustration in producing meaningful innovation.

“New” entails risk. In the early stages of pursuing any new solution, the benefits are unclear. Like venturing across unfamiliar and fog-enshrouded waters, it’s easy to sense the immediate and certain risk. It’s often hard to see the eventual and uncertain reward.

Management is responsible to protect and promote today’s business. Not invent tomorrow’s. So high among their duties are to sanction, control and mitigate risk. If your business owners and managers aren’t onboard, all metrics and even fiduciary responsibility are purpose-built to crush ambitious innovations. They’re just doing their job.

Effective cultures lead innovation Top Down and Outside-In.

To fix this conundrum, first find your sponsor. Who are the executives responsible for the opportunities that your design thinking reveals? Or at the very least, who is responsible for growth? What are their aspirations and motivations?

I spoke with a client about this, a top innovation executive at a large US public company. He and his team struggle with the question that all organizations eventually confront – where to find the next wave of growth.

They find themselves in the early stages of building a business innovation function. They know how to pounce on opportunities. They describe a mission that would be familiar to most practitioners. First, apply design methods to discover and convert customer or “end user” insights – pain points, unserved needs, emerging demand – into new sources of growth. Second, build a culture of innovation that spreads these capabilities across the organization.

Sounds good. But they sound tired. Why? In short: lots of pouncing; little planning.

This innovation team, like most larger companies at the formation stage, tend to rush in wherever they smell smoke – product recalls, customer complaints, account defections, bad press. They do important and valuable work, no question. But it leaves them scrambling breathlessly amid the chaos of tactical priorities.

So start the diagnosis of your own culture with a question: Are you fixing today’s business, or crafting tomorrow’s?

Lead innovation top-down.

Consider a four-tier hierarchy to build innovation into your enterprise. This triangle describes the essential elements every successful innovation team must address. If you enjoy the luxury of just getting started, I urge you to take it from the top-down, in a logical sequence.

It makes little sense to start to design without a strategy. It’s like starting to build anything without a blueprint – lots of going back to the drawing board.

Planning starts with a goal. Don’t jump to setting an innovation strategy without a clear growth agenda.

If your efforts are already underway, you’ll find it accelerates your progress to revisit your overarching mission. Go back to the start.

Quantify and qualify your business goals. Translate them into aspirations for growth. Translate those aspirations into your innovation requirements.

Get crystal clear and get aligned—from the managing board down to the floor boards. What do you want to achieve?

Perform an unnatural act.

As you do this, fight the natural human urge to think inside-out.

Most organizations – most people – can’t help but place themselves as the center of the universe. It’s the same unintentional narcissistic instinct that causes us to gaze at our reflections. Natural, but not helpful. At least not yet. (I’ll describe how our self-obsession can pay off later, in an upcoming post).

But if you invite that self-centric bias into your strategy (where we go) it dictates what you will delivery (what we do).

That means you’re thinking of yourself first, your customer second. Your capabilities first, market needs second. Supply first. Demand second. You’ve got it backwards.

Invert your priorities. Reverse that formula. If you want to control your own destiny, understand your place within it.

The essential people who determine your success, and your future, lurk outside, not within. Your customers, partners, legislators, regulators, government agencies, competitors and emerging innovators define your market, not you.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard enough to see today’s threats. Harder still to foresee tomorrow’s.

Take it from the top – know what you want. Then look around – know where you’re going – and what you’re up against.

Make better.

Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s