Back in August when I first started contributing on a regular basis to The World, I wrote a column called Design Thinking 101. In that article, I introduced the general process IDEO used to design a more patient-friendly process for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I called it Investigate, Design, Experiment, Adjust: I.D.E.A.
It's a handy acronym, but it's important to realize that these general phases are carried out in reiterating loops. And, even though the terms are fairly self-explanatory, a little explanation is in order. Each phase is focused on answering a few key questions.
Investigate is conducting the fact-finding needed to fully assess the current situation and analyze the problem/opportunity. It usually entails a good bit of immersing yourself in the customer's problem (see OPEN Forum article Customer-Centric Design: Got Empathy?).
What does the current situation look like—what do we know, what don't we know?
What is the problem the customer really wants solved?
- Why does the problem exist—what's the real or root cause?
Design is about painting a picture of what the world looks like if the problem is solved, and then generating and building up ideas that move us in that direction.
What does the situation look like in the future if the problem is solved?
What ideas exist for achieving that desired state?
What is the best solution—what can we pilot quickly to test our thinking?
Experiment is selecting an option or solution that holds promise, and conducting a rapid pilot to quickly test a prototype, be it service, product, process or strategy.
How will you rapidly test the solution?
What do you expect will happen during that experiment?
What is scope of impact, and what will it measure?
Adjust is the assess-and-tweek phase, where results are compared to the expected outcomes and measures, followed by a reiteration of the improved solution.
What worked, what didn't, and why?
What adjustments must be made?
What is the plan for reiterating?
The beauty of I.D.E.A. Loops is that they can apply to all situations, thus opening up everyday innovation to the everyman through a design thinking focus. Investigation, Design, Experimentation and Adjustment are the universal common denominators to successful innovation.
Think about it: A physician in the emergency room; a customer service representative responding to a complaint; an inventor in his workshop; an artist at her easel; a scientist in the laboratory; an operator on a 911 call; a factory worker on the shop floor; a copywriter crafting a new advertisement; an engineer programming new software—what they all have in common is IDEA Loops.
They all perform the same basic activities. It’s just the subject matter varies. The timeframe they work under varies. How they do it varies. The environment in which they do it varies.
What we're really talking about is learning. Not the acquisition of existing knowledge kind of learning. Rather, the creation of new knowledge kind of learning, brought about by experimentation. And it's so simple a child can do it. In fact, I.D.E.A. Loops come naturally.
The next time you see an infant in a high chair throwing food on the floor, know that you’re watching an I.D.E.A. Loop in action. She’s wondering what will happen if she drops her strained carrots. The problem is how to get them on the ground. She could tip her dish over the tray, flick her spoon or grab a fistful and toss away. She tries the tip. It works. Great feedback from the dish as it crashes on the tile. She confirms her test by doing it again after mom picks it up. It works so well she adopts it as her current preferred method. Lesson learned, though: Mom doesn’t like it. So she launches another experiment.
The problem is that our natural born learning, our natural curiosity, gets replaced by the overemphasis on getting the right answer—the one the teacher, and then the boss, wants—as we move through the educational system and into the organizational one. I.D.E.A. Loops, if carried through the company as a consistent approach to solving problems, can get us back into that learning mindset, and are helpful in creating a design thinking culture in several ways.
One reason so many people find it hard to be creative and so many companies find it hard to innovate is that they lack a consistent approach to the problems they and their customers face. At the heart of all remarkable innovations in any realm lies a rigorous routine, a disciplined methodology, like an I.D.E.A. Loop. Everyone has a different name for it, but every problem-solving cycle has the key elements of proactive learning in common: questioning, hypothesizing, experimenting, reflecting.
And, a common approach leads to common terminology. That terminology, if matched well to the task and goal, begins to build a common language. And language is so very important to creating the systems and structures that drive success. Having a common method focuses thought and action. It unifies them into an accessible approach that’s easy for people to understand and follow. That’s important, because everyone wants a roadmap, especially for more challenging ventures.
Perhaps what's most important to realize, though, is that there is no failure in the learning cycle. If you’ve ever wondered why pilot projects don't fail while big, one-shot, one-off projects almost always do, it’s because the goal of any pilot is to learn. So you can’t help but succeed. It’s the difference between movies and TV. TV producers always pilot a new series with a few episodes to see the audience response. Movie producers develop the final product with a bet-it-all-gambit, relying on past experience as the key input. That’s risky, very risky.
Whether it's called an I.D.E.A. Loop or codified as something else, if you insist, and persist, on a common approach centered on a rapid learning cycle of testing, experimenting, piloting, and prototyping, you’ll have a good shot at becoming a company of design thinkers solving internal and external problems as a way of life.
Matthew E. May is a design and innovation strategist, and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.