Innovation – Not Dead Yet!

Peter Jones Transformation Design, Wu Wei

By now, anyone reading Design Dialogues will have heard that Innovation (as a business concept) died in 2008. Bruce Nussbaum, who gets to decide these things, declares at the New Year: “Innovation” is Dead. Herald The Birth of “Transformation” as The Key Concept for 2009.  Scan among the 61 reader comments, and you’ll see today’s range of design thinkers, firm principals, and advanced students weighing in, mostly against.

Hey, even Neil Young says “A perfect storm for innovation is gathering in Washington.”

America now has a chance to lead the world in power and fuel efficiency. The Big three will still be looking for help at the end of March. As the major shareholder, the US government would have an opportunity to DEMAND the type of cars that will lead the world toward saving the planet for future generations.

January 4th New York Times published TWO articles on the need for innovation (and design) in the current economic mess (are we still calling it a “crisis” now?)  See: Innovation Should Mean More Jobs, Not Less and Design Loves a Depression

And perhaps you could call everything that will happen under Obama’s US $1T stimulus WPA program a transformation project. And why not? It’s what there is to do. But it would be disingenuous. If the design students graduated by the schools Nussbaum cites in the follow-up post were able to perform miracles of design with systems public and private, our decisionmakers might have listened to their foresight. While Bruce’s picks are certainly the top US design schools, there is little or no intellectual agreement about how such needed transformation will be organized and collectively designed.

BW is business-oriented publication, so I realize the declarative bombast inherent in calling one concept dead and another its replacement is largely provocative. But the way the conversation is presented is very much supply-side driven. Really, trust us to do your transformation.

There are many different understandings of how “transformation” is known, used, and understood in the business and social innovation communities. If we co-opt the term, as service providers, in place of innovation, the power of transformative design thinking will follow the same trajectory as innovation, except even more quickly. It is not a service to sell, and it is not a strategy to endorse.

Transformation appeared in wide usage in the business community in 1995, when John Kotter published “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail ” in the HBR. Transformation was also a concept that followed re-engineering, and many large organizations used the expression to imbue their biannual re-org rituals with the gravitas of the implication that transformation “changes everything.” The problem is, once an organization has “done transformation” once, people grant it no further listening, there’s no “availability” to do transformation again. I caution the design community to be aware that this meme may go back a lot farther than your own experience and practices.

More recently there was the re-envisioning of complex social problem solving as transformation design as initiated by the UK Design Council around 2005, and their well-known RED projects. These remain the state of the art in conception and performance, IDEO’s record notwithstanding. They located large scale, complex, multi-stakeholder issues and designed point solutions for one key function.  And that was non-trivial.

There is a reason that most of us do not actually sell transformation design. It cuts across multiple interests, and these projects are political.  How is political an issue in design? Ask Christo how long it takes to get clearances for an art project. Consultancies need a clear client owner, and transformation design projects must engage and satisfy multiple boundaries and constituencies. Typically only governments and major foundations will pay for such complex, large scale problem solving.

However, there are communities of design practice working in the transformation space. Some call this Design 3.0, as in “design of the organizational capacity to innovate.” Others use the term to denote social innovation projects, or public services redesign.

We can innovate many times over, transformation you can do once per opportnuity.  “To innovate” is a verb, something we do. But do we DO transformation? Transformation lives in the thing that’s being changed. We do not actually do the transforming, and for large-scale systems, the transforming takes time, commitment, forbearance, and vision. Things in short supply in the business cycle.

Change for change’s sake is expensive and disruptive. From a purely business perspective, transformation is not itself a strategy, something Kotter points out. An organization transforms because it must, or it will die off. But does it transform as a growth strategy? Maybe – but extreme strategies may also kill the company, as innovation theorist Michael Raynor points out.

Consider other targets of design. Does transforming a well-known brand help it to grow? Did the transformation of the music industry help its productive artists earn a living? Transforming is not a design strategy, it is an outcome of an extreme makeover strategy inspired by survival, social, or significant competitive drivers.

We need to be very careful in how we deploy the concepts of transformation. There are multiple versions of the idea out in the marketplace already, and each application deserves a modifier. Our clients deserve intellectual honesty from us – therefore we should develop the body of knowledge with the rigorous inquiry of our own research and experience.