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What is Human-Centered Innovation?

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In the fourth industrial revolution, the skills in highest demand are understanding, collaborating and communicating with the humans we interact with, the people our business serves.

At HP, we developed technologies using the “next bench” method of customer needs discovery.  Asking the guy sitting next to me what he needed worked as long as I was developing products for other software engineers or just-out-of-college-20-somethings-living-in-the-US-pacific-northwest.  But when I wanted to deliver something of value to people beyond my circle, the only information I had available was secondary research.  Asking the customer what they needed, and then asking them whether the solutions I created met their needs, was unheard of.

Beyond the issue of access to these potential customers, one of the biggest barriers I found was the attitude that we needed to be the ones generating ideas for innovation, not our customers.  Instead of viewing our customers as collaborators, helping to define the solution experience that would best help them, we treated them like children who really didn’t know what they wanted and certainly didn’t like what they had.

While there was truth in the sentiment that our customers did not have a good vision for the future, what we really needed was a methodology that allowed us to apply our ideas to solving their problems.  Because the crux of the matter was that unless our innovation was solving real human problems, helping our customers accomplish their tasks, it would provide no value to them or to our business.

Innovate or die

There is plenty of evidence that companies that innovate are those that are thriving today.  Most CEOs site that innovation is at the top of their list of priorities.  And beyond the desire for business growth, employees who are encouraged to innovate and problem solve are more engaged and happier with their work.  

The problem comes because most investments in innovation fail.  Typically these efforts are done outside of an employee’s regular responsibilities and if there is any customer involvement, it is unintentional, not focused.  Leaders want to innovate but they haven’t figured out how to build a culture of innovation that generates a return on their investment.  They don’t know how to operationalize innovation, to support the discovery and implementation of great ideas with the potential to improve their business.  Hence innovation is seen as a discretionary expense and a side hustle for employees often putting their careers at risk, rather than a core part of the way the business functions.

This is how it worked for me.  We discovered a new technology solution and build a new business model to support delivery to our customers in a way that solved their problems, creating an experience that fit with they way they worked.  As long as we kept it contained within our little 4-person team, we could build a solution that solved our customer’s problems.  But once we tried to scale, to actually sell and deliver our solution, we ran into barriers with trying to run an operation that was foreign to our fortune 50 company culture.  These ran the gamut from the way we sold the solution, charged the customers, negotiated contracts, delivered services, even the technologies we used in our solution.

A Better Way

We prevailed, but it took a great deal more effort and time than it should have.  Key to our success was a process that allowed us to iterate, to challenge the company norms little by little.  We had the support of a chief of staff who lead us through the process, helping us to pick our battles.  Our biggest asset, the thing that helped us most was that we had real paying customers who we listened to, who helped us design the solution.  They provided the evidence of market need, and the process we used allowed their voice to come through with every executive interaction.

Most smart business people would not attempt to pitch an idea to leadership without customer evidence of need.  But I have found the evidence they provide is weak at best, and often misleads the business to develop the wrong solution.  This is where the constructs of human centered design come into play.  I learned what it meant to design experiences from the best – BMW Designworks, Dreamworks Animation, IDEO and Frog Design to name a few.  They taught me not to keep my customers at an arms length but instead to view our ideas for innovation from their eyes.  It was that customer point of view we brought to every engineering, business and executive meeting that made the difference between a failed experiment and valuable solution.

I learned to innovate with the human I serve at the heart of the design of the product, how we operate and our business model.

Now that I am focusing my work on solving bigger problems, I find human-centered innovation especially important to discovering the right problems and the right solutions.  In fact the challenge, and the opportunity of the fourth industrial revolution is that while machines will take over some of the routine tasks that can be automated, our products and services will be reliant on us to make them human, to deliver the nuances that make a business work for our customers.  It is very exciting to think that we can work at a higher level, and deliver more value as a result.

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