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The bright, new ideas are eclectic


When executives think of business innovation, they often associate it with the usual list of suspects: Apple, Sony, 3M, Siemens, Disney and others.  Innovation and creativity have certainly paid off for those companies: Apple, for example, was able to create a nearly $10 billion industry essentially from scratch with its ground-breaking iPad, selling 15 million units in nine months.

But innovation isn’t easy.  CFO magazine, for example, talks about how some companies are buying innovation as a way to accelerate the R&D process when it might otherwise take too long to research and develop “the next big thing” organically. 

Yet, as adults, executives often bring in judgment into play, judging the ability of others to be creative – and crushing the creative process before it’s had a chance to take root, blossom and grow.  Or they apologize for their lack of skill, which has the same result. 

But creativity can be taught.  With the right tools and methods, people can be trained to be creative thinkers.  Like any new skill, however, it takes discipline and regular exercise to develop and maintain.

Human-centered design

"The future is here.  It’s just not widely distributed yet."
– William Gibson

In “human-centered” design, the innovation process centers on building empathy for end-consumers and their needs.  In some cases, this may require observation to get an in-depth sense of how people “work.”  

For example, IDEO helped develop a toothbrush for children based on their observations of how children brushed their teeth.  It was clear that adults and children held their toothbrushes differently; this required an ergonomic change that accommodated the difference.  (Ironically, the design caught on with adults, despite not having the same need.)

In another example, a financial institution wanted to attract more female customers and encourage them to save money.  Researchers observed that when women pay bills, they tend to round up the figure they owed.  So the team developed a bank account that would encourage this common inclination.  When paying a bill through the bank, the account automatically rounds up to the nearest dollar and puts that difference into a savings account.  Called a “Keep the Change” account, this behavioral-based design element became quite popular with the general public.

The innovation process

The process is structured in three fundamental stages:

Step 1: Insights and Observations

Like the toothbrush and the bank account, you have to start with observing real behavior and trying to understand it. This can mean what consumers are doing but it can also mean what you and the people within your organization are doing.  (But be cautious: basing ideas on your own behavior is referred to, not kindly, as “me-search” and can lead to inaccurate conclusions.) 

It’s not just about getting an observation; you have to ask questions, starting with “Why is this thing happening?  And how might we design it for everyone?”

A Minnesota hospital wanted to improve service for their patients in their emergency room.  But their understanding of the patient experience was based on a flow chart showing what happened to the patient – not from the observations of the patients themselves.  So a design specialist checked himself in to the ER with a broken ankle – and a video camera.  The “patient” was bored, anxious, didn’t know what was going on; the video also pointed out that his primary view was of the ceiling of the ER.  This was the beginning of empathy and the start of a new way of looking at the ER experience.

Making observations on your research isn’t easy.  What are the right questions to ask?  Where are the right places to dig for new ideas?  But when you’ve arrived at your best “how might we…?” questions, you’re ready for the next phase: ideation.

Step 2: Ideation

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."
– Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner

As adults, we’re always in a hurry to solve problems.  Yet the first idea usually isn’t the best answer.  As Alex Osborn, an ad executive, observed, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”  He is credited with developing the “brainstorm” back in 1939, a military metaphor where collective thinking would creatively attack a problem “commando style.”  Done properly, the brainstorm is an exercise designed to generate a large number of ideas. 

Being creative isn’t about throwing all discipline out the window; a creative approach to development can be – indeed, should be – rigidly structured.

The Rules for Brainstorming and Ideation

  1. Defer judgment – There are no bad ideas.  As adults, we become judgment machines; a useful skill elsewhere but not in a brainstorm. 
  2. Encourage wild ideas – Not to promote impractical ideas, but to inspire others. 
  3. Build on the ideas of others – Ideas can build on each other. Say ‘yes’ to the improvisation. 
  4. Stay on the topic – To avoid the potential of chaos, use a facilitator to remain focused.
  5. Be visual – Take out the familiar and use more of your brain to make the idea tangible
  6. Go for quantity – As Saint Augustine said, “Lord, give me…temperance, but not now.”

So whether your ideas maintain a theme or are distinct unto themselves, the point is to generate as many as you can and using them as a springboard for more ideas.

Step 3: Experimentation

"Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects."
– David Kelley, founder, IDEO

But how do you know which ideas will work?

It’s not enough to have an idea in your head or on a Post-It note; you have to make it real so you can observe and respond to it.  Ideation isn’t about plucking things out of thin air; it’s about working with what you’ve got, even if it’s a service, a strategy or something otherwise intangible.

When you make something tangible, you’re forced to acknowledge what works – and doesn’t work – about its features.  Prototypes needn’t be expensive – rough, quick prototypes that suggest a new product can help validate or reject its basic viability. 

From airplane cabin interiors to fast food restaurant service to media delivery, using prototypes and role playing can help others understand the concept and encourage developers to embrace the success or failure of an idea, then move on accordingly.  As the common aphorism suggests, “fail fast to succeed sooner.”

Creativity doesn’t have to be exclusive to designers; it can come from anywhere in your organization.  So embrace a process that is really more an imperative than a luxury.  As one CFO Club member put it, twenty percent of his company’s revenue comes from new products each year.  If they didn’t innovate on a continual basis, the company wouldn’t exist.

Five things you can do to build a culture of creativity and innovation

  1. Build empathy – Look in, look out.  Ask questions to understand end-user needs and design for them. 
  2. Embrace failure – Have your employees “ask for forgiveness, not permission.”  Encourage them to try new things.  Be open to ideas – and the potential for failure.
  3. Build to think – Make things real and tangible.  Not necessarily to validate the idea, but to learn from it.   Prototyping can be iterative – and inspiring.  Share “sacrificial concepts” as a learning tool.
  4. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable – Innovation isn’t easy.  If it’s comfortable, you’re probably not innovating.  Enable teams to navigate through the discomfort – it’s part of the process.
  5. Cultivate creativity – You shouldn’t need permission to be creative.  Recognize the role creativity plays in your organization. 

This article was based on a presentation given for RSM by Linda Deakin and Neal Stephanson of IDEO, a global design and innovation firm based in Palo Alto, California. 

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