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Author's profile photo Janaki Kumar

Innovation in unexpected places: A conversation with David Kelley


It’s easy to think in terms of big brands — Apple, Microsoft, Nestle — when considering the work we do at SAP. Behind all of those brands, however, are real people doing challenging work everyday. Typically they use tools that were designed with technical and business considerations, but not so much about their human needs. The goal of teams like mine is to show the potential of human centered Innovation and inject creative confidence into organizations.

I work at the Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC) — a design agency within SAP. Our mission is to change the perception of business software through human-centered design. We use design thinking as the framework to develop empathy for our customers and users, and we work in interdisciplinary teams in a fast agile manner to produce amazing results.

This takes me back to a conversation I had with IDEO and Stanford d.schoolfounder David Kelley.

I had the opportunity to attend one David’s talks on innovation, creative culture and creative confidence at Stanford. One of the students asked him for career advice during the Q&A session. This particular Stanford student was choosing among job opportunities from various tech startups and Internet advertising companies in Silicon Valley. David’s answer to the student was telling. He advised them to “look for innovation in unexpected places”.

I went up to David afterwards and told him that I work in one such unexpected place for innovation.

At the Design and Co-Innovation Center we have worked on more than 400 customer projects in less than three years. I invited David to visit the DCC and see some of our projects for himself, and I was thrilled when he accepted. He dropped by the DCC on Sept 21, and here are three things that stand out to me from that wonderful conversation — all of which are important for organizational leaders to know if they seek to become an unexpected place for innovation:

#1 — Don’t be a victim of over-planning: “Planning is great, once you know what the insight is that … will allow you to innovate,” David told us. He went on to explain how people spend so much time planning for things without being sure what they were planning for. Many organizations fall victim to this, seeking to understand their challenge by planning in lieu of tackling it head-on. “It takes some guts to not know what you’re doing,” David said, “but get out there and mingle — get into the mess, get into the real understanding of what’s going on.”

#2 — Overcome skeptical managers by double delivering: “Double delivering is the only way I have seen it work without a champion at the top,” said David, explaining one way in which innovative approaches could take root within an organization. If a company is reticent to make change, David recommended empathizing with people who are skeptical. That can mean doing things in the way that is expected at first, and then, in your own time, undertaking some additional work to present an alternative, creative solution. Share the results of both efforts, creating an opportunity for them to see the benefits of a design thinking approach. “Senior management starts paying attention to stuff they don’t understand that’s successful, because they view themselves as having their arms around the whole thing.”

#3 — Stay at the cutting edge, no matter what: “Whatever you think it takes for you to stay at the cutting edge,” said David, “you have to really be mindful of what you’re doing.” More people will adopt new ways of working within an organization when they see more examples of success, but it’s the practitioners’ responsibility to continue to push the boundaries. He told us to look to places such as the and look for inspiration from the outside constantly. He advocated that companies always be learning organizations that never rest when they think they’ve found the answer. There’s always more to be done. Maintaining that mentality, he said, is important to staying relevant. “You’ve just gotta’ have an incredible thirst for being at the cutting edge.”

Everything from the violin to the clock manifest inefficiencies, and yet human beings have adapted to all of them. Now, thanks to that resilience and our ingenuity, it’s within our power to make technology better fit our needs. If we unleash creative confidence within organizations, we could greatly assist people who do their jobs in spite of every obstacle placed in front of them. Given the confidence to make changes to the tools we work with and the environment we work in, we could, indeed, make a much better world.

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