A brief introduction to innovation
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is an iterative method used to understand people, question assumptions, redefine problems, and develop creative models and test solutions. This non-linear method is most useful for solving ill-defined or unknown problems.
This approach is a way of thinking that usually includes five stages: empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing. Design thinking is used by many businesses around the world to help guide innovation and exploration.
Characteristics of design thinking
A crucial characteristic of design thinking is building a deep understanding of who is the audience. Empathizing with the target audience helps identify their desires, emotions, feelings, and motives. There are several ways to learn more about individuals. Everyone can become a master of empathy with enough mindfulness and practice.
Questioning assumptions, problems, and implications is an important characteristic of the design thinking process. Deeply understanding the user, challenging assumptions, and redefining problems is an iterative process. This process helps to surface information that might not be immediately clear initially.
Brainstorming is a technique used to produce ideas for solving problems. Teams address a problem or challenge by asking “How Might We…” questions. In order to find possible solutions, they create a vast array of ideas and draw connections between them.
Prototyping is an experimental process in which design teams incorporate concepts into concrete forms, from paper to digital. Teams create prototypes with varying degrees of accuracy to capture design ideas and test users.
Sketching is part of ongoing innovation that includes hands-on exercises to test concepts and ideas. To sketch some of your thoughts and user experiences, try this free online storyboarding tool.
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and everyone should be really excellent.”
“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“You’ve got to find what you love.”
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
“Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is better than two doubles.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.”
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
“I’m convinced about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the unsuccessful ones is pure perseverance.”
“Creativity is just connecting things.”
“Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of wondering about what happened yesterday.”
“Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected. Part of my responsibility is to be a yardstick.”
“I am as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”
“People don’t want to just buy personal computers anymore. They want to know what they can do with them, and we’re going to show people exactly that.”
“I want to put a ding into the universe.”
“It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”
“If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will.”
“If something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest.”
“The way we’re going to survive is to innovate our way out of this.”
“Don’t try to start the next revolution, just crank out smart, affordable consumer products.”
“People don’t know what they want until they’ve seen it.”
“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”
“One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try and sell it.”
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”
“Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
“I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
“You know, we don’t grow most of the food we eat. We wear clothes other people make. We speak a language that other people developed. We use a mathematics that other people evolved… I mean, we’re constantly taking things. It’s a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.”
“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”
“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
“you can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards.”
- Steve Jobs
Design thinking phase
Today, there are many variations of the method of design thinking in use, and they typically have three to seven stages, phases, or modes. All design thinking variants however are very similar and embody the same concepts.
The Five Phases of Design Thinking:
- Empathize — with your users.
- Define — your users’ needs, their problems, and your insights.
- Ideate — by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions.
- Prototype — to start creating solutions.
- Test — solutions.
It is important to note that the five phases, stages, or modes are not always sequential. They do not have to follow any specific order and can often occur in parallel and repeat iteratively. Given that, you should not understand the phases as a hierarchical or step-by-step process. Instead, you should look at it as an overview of the modes or phases that contribute to an innovative project, rather than sequential steps.
Culture of innovation
characteristics of innovation culture
- Hire builders:
A company hires builders who bring varying backgrounds, ideas, and points of view to decisions and inventing on behalf of our customers. Their diverse perspectives come from many sources including gender, race, age, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, culture, education, as well as professional and life experience. They develop leaders and shape future talent pools to help us meet the needs of their customers around the world.
2. Fail Fast:
They are willing to go down on a bunch of dark alleys and occasionally they find something that really works, if it doesn’t work it is OK , they revert and go back. Do more than what you know how to do, try it and try it again.
3. Work backwards:
The hallmark mechanism every company have to consistently drive customer-centric innovative thinking and execution is the working backwards process. Every customer-facing product or service developed across Amazon uses the Working Backwards process. They use this mechanism to make sure that they build the right thing for customers and that they are customer-obsessed from the very beginning of any idea. The central artifact of the working backwards process is a Working Backwards doc, commonly referred to as a PR-FAQ.
4. Two pizza teams:
One of the ways a company has organized its structure is ‘two-pizza teams — meaning that no team should be big enough that it would take more than two pizzas to feed them. The fundamental concept of the two-pizza team came out of efforts to minimize the need for communications, minimize the time in unnecessary meetings, and accelerate the decision-making process.
The critical role of innovation
“Innovation” is actually difficult to define, and even more challenging to do well. The formula for innovation is culture + people + tools/mechanisms.
The 5 ‘W’s of Innovation
Everything around you that works is the result of innovation at some point in its past. Innovation is the successful implementation of new ideas. It’s creativity unleashed, invention executed.
New ideas come in a variety of forms, from something totally original to freshly recycled, including products, services, policies, and processes that result in the improved lives of customers. These new ideas also have variable impact, which is why it is helpful to think of innovation as falling on a continuum.
Everywhere. Innovation is happening all over the world and all around you.
It is easy to assume that innovation happens “over there” where the next billion-dollar ideas are in the works. The problem is when those large-scale innovative projects overshadow the Invent and Simplify ideas that are happening every day at every desk (door desk, of course). Innovation is about making new things. It’s also about making things new — more efficient, more accurate, more affordable.
Everyone. We are all owners and leaders, which means we are all innovators.
Business owners innovate as they think strategically about their organizations. Managers innovate as they think developmentally about their teams. Individual Contributors innovate when they think creatively about the tasks they’re responsible for.
Innovation is not someone else’s job. It is not some other team’s project. It is not a nice-to-have for some other quarter. Innovation is infused into the way we approach our work. All our work. All of us.
Every day. Sometimes proactively. Sometimes reactively. As stated in the Invent and Simplify Leadership Principle, “… They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by ‘not invented here.’ As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.”
Innovation occurs in response to:
- current events and unforeseen circumstances — especially those with a global impact as we’ve already seen in the examples of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- smaller scale indications of need, like when we discover a minor change that can further benefit our customers or identify a new solution when engaging in a continuous improvement cycle.
- a problem no one has ever encountered before, or an opportunity to build something that doesn’t have a parallel in industry or the world. We create based on our own clean-sheet ideas that originate from our vision for the future — insights that seem to come out of the clear blue sky.
Everything depends on it. A company continues to experience exponential growth — not only by headcount but also in the complexity of scale and scope across our organizations. As it grows, it continues to innovate. They’re not just getting bigger, they’re getting better at delighting their customers.
Growth naturally breeds complexity, and as organizations get bigger, they often become less efficient. The people in the middle of the organization and on the front lines feel like they don’t have any say in what happens, that they are just cogs in a giant machine. The people at the top drift farther away from the customers and the real problems needing to be solved. The whole thing starts to slowly grind down, become inwardly focused, and add fixed costs at an unsustainable level. The foundation creaks under the weight of the stuff it holds up. Simply put, it becomes less innovative.
However, if a company has a robust culture of innovation, the compression of growth does not have to translate to risk. Few companies translate to new opportunities to serve our customers in different and better ways.
Models of innovation
There are many models for innovation, each with its own advantages and disadvantages for application in particular contexts. A simple way to generalize across the many types of innovation is to think of them along a continuum from continuous to discontinuous.
Incremental (continuous) innovation and step-function, clean- sheet (discontinuous) are both necessary, and they’re related. Clean-sheet innovation has a lot of incremental innovation associated with it and incremental innovation might get to a certain point, and then you realize that you’re stuck, you can’t get to where you want to go, and it requires invention on some dimension.
As you move toward the continuous end of the continuum, innovation is characterized more as incremental, evolutionary, emergent, reactive, and focused on maintaining excellence and sustaining efficiency in the present. These are often described as linear changes for gradual, tactical, every day impact. When we participate in continuous innovation, we ask questions like, “How can we make an existing process or product faster, better, smarter?
As you move toward the discontinuous end of the continuum, innovation is characterized more as disruptive, revolutionary, breakthrough, proactive, and focused on radical, transformative changes for the future. These are often described as non-linear, step-function changes from greenfield, clean sheet innovations. When we participate in discontinuous innovation, we ask questions like, “What will our customers need or want in the future? How can we make a new solution to currently complex or not fully understood problems?”
The innovation process
The process of innovation depends on:
- Working intentionally:
Working intentionally according to the vision and shared mental models for innovation, consistently infusing innovation into individual and team level work.
Innovation is not accidental.
It is the result of our choices and the return on the investments we have made — to Think Big and also to Hire and Develop the Best to make those big ideas a reality.
Innovation is not automatic.
Yesterday’s innovation does not guarantee tomorrow’s innovation. This is why we intentionally structure our company to enable creative space and adaptive speed.
Innovation is not arbitrary.
Every company has a mission, leadership principles that represent it’s values, tenets that guide its work, and hard-earned and time-tested points of view derived from a robust portfolio of experience. This enables them to operate from conviction about what it cares about the most. Even the most radical new ideas have roots. They does not create out of nothing. Invent and continually improve in accordance with a guiding concept that gives a destination, or at least a direction.
Organizations work intentionally to ensure their portfolio is prioritized and scoped to align with the overarching innovation strategy.
Teams work intentionally to make sure they have the right roles, responsibilities, and resources to achieve their innovative goals.
Individuals work intentionally to take the initiative and ownership over their own development towards optimizing the role of innovation in their work.
Two interrelated concepts serve as the starting place for working intentionally to develop our innovations: the vision and mental models.
A vision is a view of how things could be different than how they are today. Visions go against conventional wisdom. Betting against conventional wisdom requires boldness to imagine beyond what we have a technical basis for today. This requires taking risks because some parts of the vision may not work out.
The vision doesn’t necessarily play out immediately and affect the short term. Often, it’s long-term thinking that allows you to make the right investments and to iterate, because with each generation — if the idea is solid — you’ll continue to make progress along that path.
The mental model:
Mental models are basic ideas that serve as a springboard for thinking and ideating — they lift ideas off the ground and also provide direction for those emergent ideas. Mental models can take the form of a simple statement of cause and effect, as well as more involved artifacts like PRFAQs, system dynamics models (e.g., the virtuous cycle), and tenets. Mental models are one of the most powerful tools or levers at the heart of mechanisms that drive our businesses. They are especially critical when setting out to solve new problems, as in discontinuous innovation.
By clearly defining a mental model, you and your team have a foundation for generating ideas. To be clear — ideas are generated from the mental model. For example, the Kindle, Fire TV, and Amazon Studios were ideas that came from the Digital team’s mental model, “Touch is not the last navigation method for consumers.”
Where do ideas come from?
- Expertise and a beginner’s mind.
- Irrational optimism and grit.
- Listening and imagining.
- History and science fiction.
2. Working backwards:
Working backwards from the customer, constantly returning to the fundamental goals of solving customer problems. Working Backwards primarily consists of answering the Five Customer Questions and writing the PRFAQ.
When an employee, at any level of the company, has a big idea, we start by writing a working backwards plan — a press release (PR) that outlines the vision of a product at launch and a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) that explains the customer benefit and answers anticipated customer questions.
Not all of these ideas get funded, but all ideas contribute to the ongoing cycle of advancing our understanding of customers and what does and does not work to solve the right problems. Writing PRFAQs helps crystalize and filter the ideas. This mechanism ensures we develop ideas which are big and compelling enough to customers that we are willing to invest in them.
PR/FAQs and Visuals
A Press Release is a one-page narrative explaining our vision using customer-centric language. With a PR we leap into the future and imagine how we want a customer to feel and what we want them to say when they experience the product, feature, or service we want to build.
3. Working iteratively:
Working iteratively throughout the process, continually redefining the problem and refining the solution.
Directions of iteration:
- One way doors/two way door
Each phase of the innovation process is not entirely discrete. We work intentionally toward our vision, backwards from customers, and iteratively around feedback throughout the lifecycle of any innovation.