The Clearleft Podcast

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This is the Clearleft podcast.

This episode is all about a word that every organization just loves to be associated with. Innovation. But what exactly is innovation?

Here’s Chris How, design strategist at Clearleft.


Innovation to me is simply doing something that you have not done before.

That’s not that it has never been done before.


Here’s another designer at Clearleft. Lorenzo Ferronato.


What is innovation? There is a philosopher of design, Carlo Argan, that talks about the difference between design and fashion. Design is structural. Fashion is cosmetic. And I think innovation in the same way, in sense fashion.

I believe innovation is not progress.


Strong words there from Lorenzo.

At Clearleft, we like to host industry panels and invite bright minds to share their thoughts on a topic. In the Before Times we did this in London, but this year we held an online panel discussion on designing for innovation. We invited Janna Bastow from ProdPad and Mind The Product, Matt Cooper-Wright from IDEO. Dorota Biniecka, an innovation consultant from Southern Water, and Akshan Ish from Babbel. The panel got underway with that same question. What is innovation?


Innovation is the process of breaking through into something new. And in order to get to innovation, you have to be willing to try a wide number of things.

So it’s that divergence before the convergence into something. And that’s a really key thing that a lot of teams just don’t leave the time and space for. And so innovation is something that happens, but you need the process and the tools and the people in place to make innovation happen.


For me, innovation means the distinct offering in customer value.

And there’s so many ways in which design can enable innovation in the business. It’s basically creativity in business context.

So things like problem solving, collaboration, also the management tool with processes, procedures, and then there’s the discovery, sense-making of the research. So that’s kind of my take on innovation.


For us, innovation often just means helping companies tackle challenges, either with new groups of customers that they don’t normally talk to or tackle new problems with new solutions and services that they’re not used to, or maybe even both: new solutions for new customers.

And I think that’s probably where we’re at our best is two steps away from where a company’s comfort zone is and helping them just get comfortable in that space and then go and thrive in it.


A lot of people want to do this kind of stuff. Everybody wants to be a part of the innovation team and everybody wants to be doing new, cool stuff and adding value to the business. And it’s often fear of failure and just risk aversion.


Ah, Akshan has gone right to the heart of the dilemma here. Everyone wants to be innovative, but innovation is inherently risky and not everyone has an appetite for risk.


Organizations tend to move through different cycles. Like startups, it’s all about the future. The money is going to run out so you’ve gotta think big or different in order to get some impact in the world.

And the opposite, I think is true of established organizations. That they tend to look more at fixing stuff up and moving slowly because they don’t really know where the innovation comes from.


One of the speakers at this year’s UX Fest, Radhika Dutt, talked about this risk-averse mindset manifesting itself in an over-reliance on iteration and marginal gains.


As we’ve gotten better at applying lean and agile methodologies, as these methodologies have really become ubiquitous, what has happened is that we’ve also started to reallly over-rely on iteration. And the extent to which we over rely on iteration was really clear to me at a meeting where an executive said, “I know we don’t have the right designer on the team right now, but that’s just going to mean a few additional iterations, but eventually we’ll get there”.

The assumption has become that if we just iterate long enough that we’ll get to building world changing products. The problem with this approach is: lean and agile, they’re great at helping us innovate faster. Lean and agile, really help us harness the power of iteration so that we can get to where we’re going faster.

It’s the equivalent of having a fast car. And over the last decade, we’ve really optimized this fast car. We have gotten better at our sprint velocity. We have reduced the size of our minimum viable product. We’ve continued to get a faster and faster car, but if we just step back for a moment, what we realize is what good is a fast car when we don’t know where we’re going?

What has happened in the last decade is that we’ve gotten really good at using lean and agile for innovating faster for having this fast car, but our ability to set the destination and our ability to be able to navigate to that destination, that hasn’t kept pace.


Fast cars you say? Perhaps this is the time to bring up the apocryphal Henry Ford quote about innovation. Here’s Teresa Torres.


Somebody brings up that Henry Ford quote of if I had asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse. So I want to be really clear. We’re not going to ask our customers, “what should we build?”

The way that we’re going to co-create with them is we’re going to take our knowledge, our expertise about what’s possible with technology and combine it with our customers knowledge about their own world, about their own needs, about their own pain points. And this combined knowledge is what’s really going to empower us to create better products.

So our customers do need to play a role and they do need to play a role continuously because that’s, what’s going to ensure. We stay on track and that we keep building a product that’s going to work for our customers over time.


Gregg Bernstein spoke about a specific car. The Pontiac Aztec.


Pontiac had studied the automobile market and they saw a need and the need was for something called the crossover vehicle. That was something that was not a station wagon and it wasn’t a truck and it wasn’t a mini van. It was something new. So Pontiac was onto something here because crossover vehicles are incredibly popular today.

But at the time this was groundbreaking. And Pontiac had very high hopes for sales of the Aztec. They had projected to sell 70,000 Aztecs per year. Now Pontiac had organization-wide buy-in from the CEO down to the factories and they put their best designers and engineers on this vehicle. And they ended up building a very technically advanced for its time vehicle.

And when they launched the car, it was an immediate failure. It’s considered one of the worst looking cars of all time. And on top of that, it was really, really expensive, especially for the people who they were targeting for this vehicle.

Now people buy ugly cars all the time because the lower the price point, the less refined an automobile usually is. That’s what makes it affordable. But to have a very ugly car, that’s also expensive? They had ruined their chances right out of the gate.

Now what’s weird is most of the pieces for the Aztec’s success were in place. Leadership had rallied everyone around this one mission of launching the Aztec. So teams were working together.

What happened?

So Pontiac saw a business opportunity. They got that right. That’s good. Internally they had alignment around launching this vehicle. That’s also good. And they hit all their internal deadlines to deliver this vehicle on time. So that’s also good. But something was missing.

Pontiac ignored the user. They just dismissed user feedback out of hand.

Now they had tested the vehicle pretty early with people and the people they tested it with did not like it. At all. But the folks at Pontiac felt like they had a winner. So they proceeded on their course without the vital perspective of the user experience. And because of this, the product was wrong.

It was designed in a way that people did not find it attractive. The price was wrong. It was priced way too high for the people who they wanted to buy this vehicle. And that meant their sales projections were way off. They had expected to sell 70,000 vehicles in the first year. But they only sold 11,500 in the first six months, which means they were never going to hit their 70,000 vehicle target.

And so all their financial projections were just way off. So the combo of bad design and high price meant that they did not hit their sales forecast. They didn’t get remotely close. And the shame is that when people ignored how the vehicle worked and when they ignore the price, so two significant things, but if they ignored those and they just got in the vehicle, They loved it.

They said it handled great. The controls inside were intuitive, but it was just too hard to overcome the design and the price.


So maybe research is the silver bullet that allows you to be innovative without taking big risks. Here’s researcher Maite Otondo.


Research is about the present and design is about the future.

Research can reduce the risk because at least you understand the context and the people you are designing for. So that helps you frame decisions because you understand why it’s going on. So you have a better idea of how something that you create is going to change the future based on what you understand about the present.

And that’s how you reduce risk. But you design for the future. You can’t predict the future. There’s always going to be an element of risk there. And I think if you try to reduce all risks and if you think research is the only way to reduce risk, I think it’s not very useful.

But I think there’s something about that tension between research being focused on the present and design being focused on the future.


Now we often talk about designers being comfortable with ambiguity. But organizations are far less comfortable with ambiguity, hence their aversion to risk. But as Janna points out, being comfortable with ambiguity, isn’t unique to designers.


You know, we talk about innovation and design thinking and all this stuff like we’ve invented it. Like we’re the only team in the business who works in uncertainty and we’re not. We’re just really bad at communicating it.

Think about it this way. Marketing has the saying “half of your ad dollars are wasted, you just don’t know which half.”

How do they get away with that? They are also working in uncertainty and with this idea that essentially they’re running a whole bunch of experiments and they don’t know which ones are going to work. They are working with a similar level of uncertainty that your development team is. They are experimenting. They’re asking for budgets and they don’t know which half is going to work. Cool. How do they get away with that but the development team doesn’t?

Think about the sales team. Your VP sales doesn’t come in with this perfect roadmap saying “Acme limited. They’re going to buy this deal and it’s going to come in a million dollars. It’s going to land at the end of July because they’re going to buy this deal.” They don’t know that. They have this pipeline where they say, “Well, we’re 30% sure that these deals are worth this much. And we’re 70% sure of these deals. And 60% of these deals.” They’ve got this pipeline. They’re dealing with uncertainty.

And the way that they deal with that is they say, “Can we have budget to hire some salespeople?”

And those salespeople are going to get on the phones, or get on the emails or whatever they do these days, and they’re going to run experiments. They’re going to try to make deals. And some of those experiments are going to fail as in, they’re going to be hung up on and the deals aren’t going to go through. And some of them are going to be successful as in they’re going to make sales. And they don’t know that Acme is going to buy a million dollars worth of their product in three months time. They do know that if they invest a million dollars in a bunch of salespeople, then they will get deals like that down the line, because they’ve done that in previous quarters.

And that’s all that the development team, the product team is asking for is the ability to invest in time, to experiment, to try out things, some of which will fail and some of which will succeed. But as long as we’re all pointing at the same sort of outcomes, then we will start succeeding and nailing some of those numbers.

So we’re not asking for anything less certain than that. But if you start showing your execs that actually others do it too. It’s not crazy what we’re asking for here. All we’re saying is that there are rewards if you do it. There’s risks if you don’t. And it’s easy enough to do. Look how others are doing it. Let’s get together and we can do this innovation thing and it should start moving the needle in the right direction for you.


Maybe the way to cut this Gordian Knot is to create a separate silo for risk and innovation. A skunkworks project. An innovation laboratory.


I wonder if this is a problem with where design sits in an organization. That if you look at other sectors, they tend to often be better at having some form of innovation engine going on in their world. So if you look at an up-market kitchen, they will often have an experimental kitchen. You know, their role is to start putting new recipes together, learning what works and what doesn’t work as quickly as possible in order to reinvent that menu.


Here’s Clearleft strategy director, Andy Thornton.


Where innovation lives within a company feels like a critical factor here. Is there a sort of lab concept to innovation, which is there’s a little silo in the business where they kind of do their own experiments. I imagine, you know, bubbling beakers of water and stuff and explosions happening.

The lab concept is very much one way of handling innovation as in it’s a siloed self-funded part of the business that’s allowed to make lots of failure, but very often it doesn’t have much communication with other parts of the business.


A lab is such a small thing that the chance of them actually coming up with something and moving the business in that direction feels so remote that it feels like your comfort zone probably is playing with shiny new stuff, having a bit of wow factor. And then everybody goes back to their day job.


It’s always more urgent to divert your resources to the problems and challenges to maintaining the status quo.

So I think if you don’t have a separate function, that’s your ring-fenced resource, then I think you definitely will end up maybe more towards iteration and smaller scale problems.


We were discussing innovation recently at work. Clearleft’s design director. Jon Aizlewood had this to say.


I still think there’s an interesting thing there between agency and products, right? Because we tend to be more of the moonshot mentality. People bring agencies, typically not to augment their teams, although that’s a different type of agency than we are, but more so to like help explore a new idea and help it get started.

I personally see us as much more in the innovation space than we are in the iteration space.


I don’t know if I agree with that, Jon. I think most of the work I’ve done recently, somebody’s gone "here is a definable problem we want you to solve." And they’ve got an idea of what that looks like, and they’re wanting our skills to build it. It’s more about pushing things forward at a bit more speed rather than taking a look at how you could tackle the problem that they’ve got in a completely different way.


Interesting. From Chris’s response, it sounds like there might be differing viewpoints on what Clearleft can offer clients when it comes to innovation. So I followed up with Chris and asked him. Does clear Clearleft do iteration? Or does Clearleft do innovation?


I think there’s a middle piece missing from that. That is where Clearleft generally sits which is taking a brief or a problem that’s already been articulated to some degree from a client. So a problem that they’ve identified or an opportunity that they’ve identified, and they’re looking for a solution to that problem that they’ve got.

And often the client has got the start of an idea about how we could help them solve that.

Recently a client has come to us from a university and said that they want to improve their online prospectus. Now that has a level of innovation and iteration within it. The boundaries are set. The output they’re requiring is a digital prospectus. And that sets us on the direction for the project.

I think in the world of true innovation, you would start with those bigger and broader questions of “Why do you need a prospectus? What’s that doing for you? Are there other ways of solving that?” If the question that you’re really trying to get to is “how can we acquire the brightest minds to come to our university?”, that might take you in a different direction from creating a better version of the prospectus that they’ve already got.

And I think that’s true of many clients. I think when you come to an agency by the nature of the engagement with an agency, time is the critical issue. And because time is always going to be limited, and time is being set by the budget, clients quite rightly come with an idea of, of what they want to get out of that project. And it might be learning something, but usually it’s producing something. And there’ll be time within that project to explore and discover something around that problem. But the ship has already left the harbour.

And I think innovation in its truest sense is often the step before that. It’s looking at all of the possibilities and weighing up which direction you go in.

Innovation is better done where you’ve got the time to both explore what’s in front of you, the ideas, the possibilities that are there, but also time at the end of that, to extend that engagement into actually delivering that idea that you’ve got. So I think one of the difficulties working in an agency environment is we’re employed for a period of time in order to investigate something or explore something.

But the nature of the engagement is we will walk away. So it’s imperative on an agency to excite, communicate, hand over the knowledge to the client in order that they can take that idea forward to deliver it.

So in some ways, innovation might be better done with an in-house team who have the time and the continuity to keep that idea going. I think the challenge for an in-house team is the fresh pair of eyes, the experience of different sectors, different environments coming into play in what they’re creating.

So maybe the perfect hybrid is an in-house team that have that, that experience, that knowledge, that longevity and continuity, but bolstered with an agency team who can come in with some fresh perspectives, challenge some of the norms and the perceived wisdoms of that sector.

And both of those forces working together, probably give you the perfect innovation engine.


So the key is finding that balance between innovation and iteration or business as usual.


Too many organizations are focused on incrementally improving what they already have i.e. marginal gains to a certain point of local maxima, as opposed to looking at fresh horizons, looking outside of this current hill to try and find a bigger hill somewhere else, a bigger opportunity. And I suppose Clearleft a really keen to ensure that clients are always at least thinking of that bigger picture, even if we’re not always necessarily helping them move to that new mountain, we’re trying to point them in the right direction to see that landscape, to be able to see there is more out here than just this local maxima.


If you’re doing business as usual and you’re just looking for those marginal gains and you’re just looking to optimize the whole time, you miss out on the bigger opportunities, the significant changes that you might be making.

I worked with a product owner who critically, but I thought wisely said of the organization we were working for, they’ve picked all the low hanging fruit. And at some point they’re going to have to put the ladder up the tree to get the fruit at the top of the tree, but they didn’t know how to do that. It was all about small moments of iteration on an established product.

But equally saying that whenever I’ve seen an innovation lab, certainly in the digital world I’ve always found it’s a little bit too divorced from the main organization. It’s doing a little bit of innovation theater. It’s playing with new tech or new ideas, but not close enough to the problems that the customer or the audience of that organization have, or the organization and the problems that they have.

So I think you need to sit in the middle. I would always say to clients, you don’t want a team that just optimizes and you don’t want a team that just innovate.

You want to be moving people around those functions, but making sure that there is time set aside in your product roadmap, your portfolio of products to make sure there is time to really look at innovation. The next big idea. To have the thinking space, to be able to do that. But equally any product or service that is out in the world needs looking after. It needs improving, it needs maintenance. And you need time to be able to do those things.

I think the challenge for most organizations is making sure that there is this sense of balance between different types of activities.

I mean, I always think about it on three horizons that you’ve got, and excuse the alliteration, futures, features, and fixes.

So the futures are the moon shots, the big ideas, they’re essentially the learning projects where a lot of those bets will fall by the wayside. But you’re hoping to find the little bit of gold in the panning that you’re doing.

And then the features are the significant improvements to that product, the things that will get launched and talked about, and you need a team that can explore those, sketch them, iterate upon them, come up with interesting ways, but ultimately deliver those features into the code base.

And then at the other end there are the fixes, getting rid of technical and design debt, making sure that the website or the app or whatever digital product you have or service you’re offering is fine tuned. You’re removing those annoying errors and issues which are going to put customers off.

And I don’t think any organization can do well if they are over-indexing on any of those.

You tend to get startups that are all looking at the future because for them that’s all they have. They don’t have the technical and design debt to repair. It’s coming up with the future big idea and launching that as quickly as possible before their runway of finance runs out.

But equally, if you’re a company with an established product, you don’t just want to be doing small level fixes. The world moves and your customers change, their needs change, their requirements, their expectations change. So you have to have that balance between the big next idea and optimizing what you currently have.

And that is a real challenge. I think digitally one of the most interesting jobs at the moment is the product owner who is trying to balance people and resources to both look at futures, features and fixes, and to get a blend between those three different horizons.


You can read more from Chris about futures, features, and fixes on the Clearleft blog,

Thanks to my innovative colleagues, Chris How, Andy Thornton, Jon Aizlewood and Lorenzo Ferronato. Thanks to our innovative panelists Janna Bastow, Matt Cooper-Wright, Dorota Biniecka and Akshan Ish. Thanks to the innovative UX Fest speakers, Radhika Dutt, Teresa Torres and Gregg Bernstein.

And thank you for listening.