The companies that we usually refer to as innovative, organizations that excel at continuously generating innovations over time, they all have two things in common; they cultivate their capacity to innovate and they have designed their organization's idea development journey, i.e. a designed pathway for how ideas are nurtured and developed within their organization. Unfortunately this is something we rarely see in the impact sector.

These processes are what Social Innovation Booster brings to its members and our aim is to democratize the access to innovation tools and processes, and make them accessible to people who seek to create new approaches for solving our world's complex challenges.

Even though innovation is an “unpredictable thing … that doesn’t mean it cannot be managed" - Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup

Why the impact sector needs access to innovation tools

Organizations in the impact sector, with the purpose to achieve a positive impact on many people’s life through services in health, education, sustainability, and nourishment sectors, often create markets that weren't there before or seek to disrupt a status quo. For organizations who face a lot of uncertainty, it is essential to have structured processes that embrace the ambiguous and provide a simple way forward.

The Bridgespan Group surveyed 145 nonprofit leaders on their organizations’ capacity to innovate, as reported in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The capacity to innovate was here defined as a break from practice, large or small, that leads to significant positive social impact. For 80% of these leaders, innovation was considered to be an urgent imperative, but only 40% believed that their organizations were set up for it. The lack of innovation culture in these organizations is worrying, as it prevents them from achieving the large-scale impact they seek.

Why design thinking is a great approach for innovation

Innovation is neither magic nor mystery. Design Thinking is an approach that has fueled many of the disruptive tech innovations that we have seen over the last two decades. The approach is smart, human, agile, and puts people at the center of every move it makes.

It is widely accepted that solutions are much better when they incorporate a user-driven criteria. Market research can help companies understand those criteria, but the hurdle with this type of research is that it’s hard for customers to know they want something that doesn’t yet exist, and uncertainty is unavoidable in innovation.

Professor Jeanne Liedka from University of Virginia identified a few things that really point out why the design thinking approach is so powerful when dealing with a lot of uncertainty. After performing a study that involved more than 50 projects over 7 years, she published the results in Harvard Business review where she states that design thinking is a great approach because it:

  • Provides a clear and simple process. It is a great way to get people moving in a common direction and curbs the tendency to spend too long exploring a problem, or to impatiently skip ahead.

  • Instills confidence. Most humans are driven by a fear of mistakes, so they focus more on preventing errors than on seizing opportunities, and opt for inaction rather than action when a choice risks failure. But there is no innovation without action — so psychological safety is essential. The tools of design thinking deliver a sense of security, and help the team to move more assuredly through the process of discovering customer needs, idea generation, and prototyping.

  • Enables a broad commitment to change, as different stakeholders are involved in the definition of the problem as well as in the development of solutions.

  • Help teams to discover more original ideas. Defining problems in obvious, conventional ways often leads to obvious, conventional solutions. The design thinking tools for ideation techniques help the teams to ask more interesting questions.

The design thinking process

The design thinking loop

There are many ways of visualizing the design thinking process (just google it!) but you'll always find a few things in common; empathizing with the users, some element of prototyping or experimenting, and working in iterations where learning compounds over time.

The picture shows how Social Innovation Booster visualizes the design thinking loop. The right side of the loop is about understanding the problem from the users point of view, and the left side is about exploring the solution. During the design thinking process, you will go through several iterations of this loop. In each iteration, you alter between understanding the problem and exploring the solution, which allows you to really determine the root cause of the problem you are solving. The quality of your final outcome will be in direct proportion to your ability to identify the right problem to solve.

The stages in the design thinking loop:

1. Empathize. Identify who you are designing for and learn about the challenge from their perspective.

2. Analyze. Analyze what you've learned and rephrase your key findings into insights

3. Ideate. Based on the user insights, try to come up with as many ideas as possible that align with your purpose and the users' needs.

4. Prototype. Create a simple prototype and use it to get feedback from your users.

5. Iterate. Think big and start small. Keep iterating toward the right solution.

As you can see, design thinking is a process with a natural flow from research to rollout. The approach ensures that the solution meets the objectives and needs of the users, as well as aligns with the organization's purpose and "why".

Are you interested in learning more about how to design a kickass social innovation with a design thinking approach? Then you should enroll in one of our Booster Programs. The Booster program is a 7 week online learning program where you develop your own idea or business with a design thinking approach. Read more about our programs here

The idea development journey - from idea to sustainable business

The idea development journey

Each innovation starts out as complex, knotty problems with a solution that seems nearly unimaginable. By iterating the design thinking loop, the idea will slowly be brought to shape. The idea development journey provides a structure and process for identifying, testing and transforming promising concepts into sustainable solutions. By prototyping early and often, the organization can let go of bad ideas at an early stage before putting in too much resources into them.

Organizations with effective idea development journeys:

  • Generate new ideas systematically

  • Test ideas using clearly articulated criteria, metrics, and methodologies

  • Prioritize and scale the highest potential ideas

Along with factors such as leadership, creating a curious culture and aiming for diversity in the teams, the idea development journey proved to be crucial for the ability to innovate, according to an article in Stanford Social Innovation review. Unfortunately few nonprofits have introduced such practices today, but it doesn’t take an overwhelming amount of planning to set up clear pathways and processes for surfacing, testing, and introducing new innovations.

Regardless where you are in your business journey, you can cultivate your capacity to innovate and design an idea development journey that suits your organization. If you need help in setting up your own idea development journey, start by downloading our free templates and join our supportive community for questions, tips and tricks. We also offer individual coaching sessions or Booster program to support you on your journey.

How to start a business and develop "the right thing"

The idea development journey is useful for cultivating the innovation capacity in your organization; new ideas travel through the idea development journey, starting out with a lot of unknown factors, and narrowing down the more you learn about the users, their needs, the value proposition and the business model. But the idea development journey is also very useful when you are just about to start a new business and need some structure and a roadmap for how to develop the business over time.

In our Booster Programs, the participants range from having just a hunch to having a full grown business with a need to scale and find new ways to grow. The participants who are in the discovery phase often have a concept idea/vision outlined in their head and need to understand the opportunity and shape the solution in a way that will have a meaningful impact.

The phases of the idea development journey:

Phase 1. The discovery phase - Defining the purpose and the user

In the phase of the idea development journey you will probably have a portfolio of options to develop. The trade-off is that too many ideas will dilute your focus and resources.

To decide what idea to move forward with, you need to invest some time to build the foundation; explore the purpose of what you are doing, pinpoint the problem that you personally care about and are uniquely capable of solving, and define a hypothesis of your target audience. By focusing on a specific group of users, you will be able to plan strategically for how to reach them and start your process of empathizing with them. In the discovery phase you will also benefit from doing a first version of your Theory of Change.

If you are entering the Booster program in the Discovery Phase you will explore the opportunity that surrounds your idea and start shaping the solution in a way so it will have a meaningful impact. In the Booster Program, you will learn all the tools and techniques for doing one iteration of the design thinking loop and you will be ready for launching a simple prototype after the program.

Phase 2. The development phase - Designing the service

In the service design phase, you will co-create your service together with your users with the ultimate goal of creating a minimum lovable service. There are many different techniques for this, semi-structured interviewing, using trigger material, live prototypes or hosting co-creational events. Depending on the nature of your service and your goal you will choose techniques that suit your purpose. . etc. to empathize with your users and to prototype and co-create your service together with your users. You will also benefit from creating a Customer Journey Map to get an overview of how to develop the customer experience.

Phase 3. The commercialization phase - Designing the business

In the commercialization phase, you will mainly focus on creating a sustainable business model. The business model is the description of how the idea will generate value for the customers as well as for the organization. A good business model should align with the organization's goals, as well as it needs to be robust and self-reinforcing. You probably already had a hypothesis of the business model, but in this phase you’ll use the design thinking loop to prototype the price point and different aspects of the business model.

Phase 4. The growth phase - Designing the positive impact

By the time you reach the growth and scaling phase, you are ready to plan how to achieve the positive impact that you are striving for. You have your minimum lovable service, a viable business model. Now is the time to create your impact strategy, which will consist of your Marketing and Content strategy as well as a fuller version of the Theory of Change. In this phase, the theory of change will serve as a roadmap that outlines the steps you need to take to achieve the positive impact that you are striving for. It also identifies the underlying assumptions in each step, which allow you to spot any potential risk in the business model and serve as a foundation for your impact reporting to investors and other stakeholders.

The messy truth

As will all models, the idea development journey is a simplified version of the real world. In real life, the process might look more like this.

The phases will float into each other; you might need to design the business model simultaneously as you are designing the service and redefining your theory of change.

But I assure you, the more structured you are with designing how your idea matures from development to market entry, the more likely it is for it to succeed. Think big, start small, and relentlessly prototype toward the right solution and you will develop an organization with a high capacity to innovate.

If you need help in setting up your own idea development journey, start by downloading our free templates and join our supportive community for questions, tips and tricks. We also offer individual coaching sessions or Booster program to support you on your journey.

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