Use design thinking to supercharge innovation and shoot for the moon

Technological advances are accelerating the pace of business change like never before. Markets and customers can change overnight. Yesterday’s suppliers can become tomorrow’s competition, and yesterday’s competition can become tomorrow’s strategic partner.

The companies that can’t adapt — and fast — will find themselves swallowed up by the companies that can. You already know all this. But what can you do about it? SAMA and 3M recently co-hosted an executive symposium at 3M’s campus in Dusseldorf, Germany, where practitioners from 3M, Arcadis and DHL shared their experiences from the point of view of their respective companies.

Read on to find out what you, as a leader in your SAM organization, can do to position your company for sustainable success:

“Shoot for the moon.”

Most SAM organizations are expected to grow by at least double the rate of the rest of the company. This means that creating value on the margins — smoothing out a customer’s supply chain, say — isn’t going to deliver the impact expected by upper management.

At 3M that means “shooting for the moon,” says Dan Snustad, technical director in Western Europe for 3M Research and Development. “People talk about failure, but I talk about ‘fast learning,’” he says. “If you don’t have failures, you’re going to be incremental. You’re going to be ‘me too.’”

At 3M that means creating a culture that encourages taking risks. Management at 3M encourages a culture of innovation and risk taking in a number of ways, including:

  • Boundaryless organization. Employees have carte blanche to talk to the owner or marketer of a technology or capability to see how they might be able to leverage it for a customer.
  • “15 percent time.” Employees are empowered to spend up to 15 percent of their work time to pursue projects they’re passionate about but may lay outside the scope of their normal work duties. The initiative has produced some of the company’s best sellers and become a model for other companies looking to push an innovation agenda.
  • The ability to move very quickly to prototype, offering multiple early stages where employees can try and fail without retribution.

“For innovation to happen,” Snustad says, “You have to create the space to allow risk.”

Design thinking isn’t just another process. It’s a mindset.”

So how does this mindset filter out into the organization? One way is through 3M’s embrace of the principles of design thinking. Monica Dalla Riva, the company’s head of design in Europe, stresses that design thinking isn’t about aesthetics. The word design comes from the Latin de-signare, or “to create meaning.” Riva uses this to guide her team’s design efforts and 3M’s broader approach to customer-inspired innovation:

“Design thinking isn’t just another process. With a process, you do all the right steps and then you’re done. With a mindset, you have to think at every step of the way, ‘Am I doing this for the customer? Is it delivering meaning?’”

What else is design thinking NOT? It’s also not just another way to generate new ideas, Riva says. Every company has ideas. The goal of design thinking should be to find the most meaningful ones.

For Riva, the goal of design thinking is to create meaningful experiences for the customer. Thinking of your customer as people, and zeroing in on all the different touchpoints your company has with your customer, will serve as your guide to making sure you are working on solving the right customer problems.

One challenge of a design thinking approach is data — specifically, there’s no data about the future. So how do you create meaningful innovation for a future state you don’t have concrete information about? If you create innovation that’s too far ahead of its time, it won’t be meaningful for people and won’t be adopted.

That’s why Riva’s team starts by looking 10 to 15 years in the future — by leveraging internal expertise and outside research to build future scenarios — and then works backward, to look three to five years into the future. But design thinking isn’t just a way of generating insights about the hazy future; it also can be a very concrete tool to engage with your customers.

Riva and her team used a design thinking approach to reimagine the typical “Tech Day” where customers file past a bunch of tables haphazardly covered with the company’s solutions. Riva and her team created “Design Nights” with the goal of creating new ways to engage meaningfully with the customers by telling a story. Rather than grouping technologies chronologically, or by 3M industry segment, the technologies were grouped and presented in a way that would be meaningful to the customer. Because in the end, if you’re not bringing meaning to your customers, you’re just another vendor peddling just another product.

“We’d like to see this a little better.”

What does it look like when you use design thinking for an actual customer engagement? Here we turn to Arcadis, the Netherlands-based design, engineering and management consulting firm, and Jim Ford, the company’s global head of client development.

One of the many areas Arcadis works in is environmental remediation, and this success story grew out of a simple customer request: “How can we make this process more impactful by getting a better visualization of your recommendations?” To put it very simply, companies hire Arcadis to build conceptual models of sites that need may need remediation, which the companies can use to make decisions about risk and resource allocation.

In the past, this was all in two dimensions, on paper. But recently a customer asked Arcadis if it could make its predictive models more dynamic and interactive. The SAM worked with outside software providers to develop a tool to build an interactive, three-dimensional digital representation of the site. Suddenly, the customer could grasp the specifics of the site much more intuitively. But they wanted to be able to drill down deeper into the data.

For this, Arcadis built a cloud-based platform and leveraged IBM Watson to bring predictive analytics into the equation. Then, using 3D printing and augmented/virtual reality, Arcadis rendered the models the customer could feel, touch and manipulate. This cut the time to remediate by several years, helping the customer make more informed business decisions and saving millions of dollars. And it all started with the innocent customer request, “We’d like to see this a little better.”


Engaging your customer ecosystem: Five rules to live by

Meeting your customers’ increasingly complex challenges requires new way of working, and in many cases this starts with recognizing that your company can’t possibly have all the answers in-house. This reality will require you to embrace an ever more expansive definition of your customer’s ecosystem to include not only your customer but your customer’s customer, their other suppliers, your own suppliers, and even your competition.

This is bound to make people in your organization uncomfortable. Jim Ford, the global head of client development at the Netherlands-based engineering, architecture and business consulting company Arcadis, offers five rules to live by as you begin (or continue) to expand your customer ecosystem paradigm.

  1. Decide what you want out of co-creation. It is critical to choose with whom you want to engage and how. Developing this type of inclusive ecosystem requires massive effort, so it’s critical to (a) have management buy-in and (b) decide which markets and which customers warrant the investment. Once you’ve done this, you have to ask these questions: What’s the strategy? What’s the client experience look like? What do you want the output to look like? How are you going to assess whether the mutual value you create justifies the investment? “If you don’t answer those questions,” Ford says, “you’re going to be DOA.”
  2. Position yourself and your company as the ecosystem captain. When you take on the role of assembling and leading the ecosystem, you get to define who’s “in” and who’s not, what the goals are and the role that each participant will play. Most importantly, the client’s perception of your value goes up immeasurably.
  3. Develop a strategy to leverage and connect talent across all the organizations. It can’t be just you, a technical expert and your executive sponsor. Do not underestimate the knowledge, expertise and creativity of people in your organization who have nothing at all to do with your customer or even your customer’s industry. The more expansive your view of who’s “in” from your organization, the better you’ll be able to “zip up” with your customer’s organization. The strength of the connective bond comes with each tooth that connects you to the customer, and the power of having a different perspective is huge.
  4. Recognize that you can’t have all the solutions in-house; think of yourself like a broker. We stipulated at the beginning that you won’t have all the answers. You have to think of yourself as the idea broker, reaching into other organizations — even your competitors’ — for expertise you may not have in house. This is the part that’s going to make you, and others inside your organization, the most uncomfortable. “That’s OK!” Ford says. So long as you’ve cemented yourself as the ecosystem captain, you’ve got nothing to worry about. This expanded group of problem solvers will allow you to come up with much more robust and impactful solutions.
  5. Make sure you have a mechanism for scaling your solutions. The best solution in the world is next to useless if you don’t have a plan for scaling your new solutions and platforms for other customers, markets and priority sectors.

Do you have the right blend of skills and competencies to thrive in this ecosystem leadership role? Here are Ford’s top three competencies for 21st-century SAMs:

• Understanding the needs and key drivers of your customer and market trends driving their orientation.

• Combining that knowledge with knowledge of your own organization to create an actionable plan.

• Having agility, leadership skills and ability to translate plans into action.

Want to know how you compare to your peers in these (and other) critical SAM competencies? SAMA has conducted close to 2,000 individual competency sessions, offering SAMs and extended account teams a data-driven snapshot of how they’re performing and a roadmap for improvement.

Learn more here.