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Expand and Upgrade Your Design Thinking with Human Centered Innovation

“Design thinking” has swept the world. While there have been many methods for finding innovative yet practical solutions to business and social challenges – such as the “Creative Problem Solving” process of Osborn and Parnes – somehow “design thinking” has caught the world’s fancy like no other.

In part, design thinking’s popularity has grown because “innovation” has been named as a top-3 strategic priority by thousands of executives over the past decade. “Being innovative” at work is no longer just for specialists – it is a necessary core competency for every person, in every job, every day.

Its popularity is also due to its unique origins and formulation at the Institute of Design at Stanford University (“the”) in collaboration with the founders of the award-winning global design firm, IDEO. In the’s own words, design thinking “combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines.”

Design thinking employs:

  1. A common understanding of “innovation”
  2. Innovative thinking skills
  3. A 5-step innovation process that features rapid prototyping
  4. A central emphasis on empathy

On the surface, the first 3 elements don’t seem very unique. What has made design thinking so widely adopted around the world is the 4th element: an emphasis on empathy: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” (Merriam Webster dictionary).

Empathy helped to bring a human centered dimension to the other 3 elements – supplying a degree of emotional intelligence to accompany the mental rigor of problem solving. Empathy means putting yourself into another’s shoes, and being willing to see the world from their point of view. It means designing a solution that truly works for them – rather than first-and-foremost seeking a solution for your own gain or convenience.

This human element of empathy is so much the core of design thinking that the term itself has morphed into “human centered design.” This new label foreshadows the integration of design thinking into full blown Human Centered Innovation.

Human Centered Innovation is a richer, deeper form of design thinking.
It expands and upgrades each of the 4 design thinking elements, providing
context and methodologies that include yet go beyond design thinking.

Expand and upgrade a common understanding of “innovation”

There are more than a dozen myths about innovation that severely limit how people engage in being innovative. One of these myths is that innovation mainly means new products or processes. Instead, consider 5 distinct domains of innovation that aim to optimize:

  • Growth/revenues
  • Process effectiveness/costs
  • Human capital/knowledge
  • Alignment of strategy/culture/business models
  • Stakeholder relationships

Human Centered Innovation incorporates a focus on all these domains in an inclusive approach to engaging people across the entire organization to be innovative, to think innovatively, and to act innovatively in their daily work. Research from Deloitte and others has shown that the more types of innovation a business engages in, the more that business outperforms the stock market growth of its peers.

Expand and upgrade innovative thinking skills

A study originally conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (by this author) in the 1980s revealed 4 distinct approaches to innovative thinking: Visioning, Modifying, Experimenting, and Exploring. The 4 styles are formed by 2 dimensions:

  • What stimulates your innovative thinking: facts/details (Modifying and Experimenting) or intuition/analogies (Visioning and Exploring)?
  • How do you approach the innovation process: focused/outcome-oriented (Modifying and Visioning) or broad/learning-oriented (Experimenting and Exploring)?

Each style is like a language of innovative thinking, not a type of person. One style might be a “mother tongue,” yet every person can learn to speak and be versatile with all four to enable innovative thinking and enhance group facilitation. And each person uses all 4 styles at one time or another, with different preferences and tendencies.

Human Centered Innovation deliberately incorporates the mindset and tools/techniques to deepen and enrich innovative thinking by becoming versatile with all 4 styles.

Expand and upgrade the innovation process

Most innovation today requires cross-functional, cross-cultural collaboration, often with people outside the organization itself. And there’s an art as well as a discipline to an innovation process that fosters such collaboration.  For innovative teamwork and customer-driven innovation to flourish, the “art” incorporates human values and emotional intelligence to go with the “discipline” and mental rigor of innovation methodologies.

The full innovation process also has a breathing rhythm of “inhale” and “exhale.” Design thinking focuses first on defining a user’s needs, and then emphasizes what we call the “exhale” portion of the full innovation process: generating ideas, prototyping and deciding on solutions, and implementing them.

There are critical elements of the “inhale” portion that precede a definition of user needs and ideation: ensuring the goal is both meaningful and important (by evoking concerns and skepticisms as well as hopes and aspirations); and identifying core strengths to empower confidence and courage, along with a holistic as well as empathetic analysis of key issues. Thus, a richer, deeper innovation process first gathers the “raw material” through a healthy “inhale” in order to properly stimulate the “exhale” that starts with generating creative ideas.

Human Centered Innovation includes tasks to fulfill the inhale and exhale portions of the process, and elicits the deeper art as well as discipline in equal measure.

Expand and upgrade the central emphasis on empathy

Empathy is but one of many universal “human values,” the positive qualities of good character found across cultures and time. Other human values include: respect, keeping promises, fairness, caring, honesty, and authenticity.

Research by VCI has identified 48 human values that are on the forefront of people’s minds when they are innovating. And research at HP, Google, Great Place to Work Institute, and elsewhere have shown that when such human values are considered foundational, the level of innovative collaboration can elevate a team from success to extraordinary success.

Human Centered Innovation expands beyond “empathy for customers” to include the wide range of human values practiced with team members, vendors, and other stakeholders. It taps into this broader fabric of human values to energize and guide innovative efforts throughout the process.

Human Centered Innovation: a journey of self-awareness and collective insight

Human Centered Innovation also requires more than just upgrading the 4 elements. It involves a deep dive into understanding oneself and others. That means starting with strength-based self-assessments that provide personal and group insights into the diversity of understanding, innovative thinking, innovation process tasks, and human values.

When there’s a greater understanding and appreciation for the rich tapestry of approaches and preferences that people have for the 4 elements, then diversity becomes the ally, not the enemy, for inclusive, collaborative innovation. 

Do you want to broaden and enrich “design thinking” skills for yourself and your colleagues?

Browse VCI’s workshops and blended learning courses on “Conscious Human Centered Design”

About the Authors

Debra Miller and William Miller have dedicated their careers to enabling “conscious innovation”. Debra draws from her experience as an IT executive and business coach, while William completed his tenure as Head of Innovation Management at the Stanford Research Institute. Together, they balance inner transformation with mastering new competencies for bringing out the innovative best with “every person, every job, every day.”

Debra Miller and William Miller

Last updated: 12 May 2022

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