The Reality of Innovation

Sketchpads, whiteboards, and sticky notes: Where product design starts, but shouldn’t end

The Reality of Innovation

Many, if not all, of our clients are looking for the “next big thing” in their industry. Ideation and brainstorming activities are usually a good starting point in trying to discover them. These creative gatherings are usually focused on generating new concepts and provoking thoughts that are untethered by any type of constraints. It is fun and exciting to think up new ideas if we ignore how they might actually work or be produced. Phrases like “thinking outside the box”, and “blue sky thinking” mean that there are no limitations and all solutions are possible. Freeform brainstorming activities unleash a flow of ideas--sometimes so fast it is difficult to get them all on paper. At the end of these sessions, when the walls are plastered with hundreds of sketches of potentially new intellectual property, the power of collaborative creativity becomes obvious. Often, the excitement is almost palpable when the team unearths an idea that everyone knows is “the one”.  

Yes, there is true power in pure creative thinking that is unconstrained by preconceived notions. However, Catalyst has found that reality can sometimes be an equal and opposite force. The reason many of these great ideas never make it off the sketchpad is because constraints and limitations do exist and must be considered if the goal is to take new products all the way through to production. The point is that “the box” is often defined by what a company does well and what designers know. Those who work in corporate product development are often limited by the resources that surround them. When challenged to think outside of the box created by these resources, they are often pulled back to reality by the subset of tools they have to work with. Existing constraints may include budgets, timing, manufacturing facilities and expertise, proprietary company technology and patents, branding and marketing, sales techniques, economies of scale, and distribution channels. Of course, if the goal of a brainstorming session is to simply generate what-if scenarios by pushing the creative envelope—constraint recognition may not be that important. Catalyst supports these types of “product futuring” exercises frequently. But, in creative meetings with a clearly defined problem that must be solved or an opportunity that needs exploited, consideration must be given to the physics, resources, and time needed for development or the concepts will never make it off of the whiteboard. An idea is still just an idea until it can be proven, tested, touched, used, applied, etc.   

But, many times, we see incredible ideas go no further than a quick doodle on a post-it note even though it is obvious that it is a great concept and it fits within the client’s resources. Why is this?

 Timing is as important as any other resource in developing great ideas

 The answer lies in what we define at Catalyst as Point-In-Time opportunities. This means that great concepts may only be great if they meet specific criteria relative to a company’s resources and core competencies at a specific point in time. As anyone working in product design and development knows, innovative product ideas must find a balance between being desirable to customers, feasible to produce, and viable for the business in order to move from concept to reality. But, there is another criteria that is often over-looked and that has to do with timing.  Businesses are dynamic things—constantly in flux and trying to react to market conditions that are also in motion. The challenge in product development is aligning desirability, feasibility, viability with business timing, and ever-changing market opportunities. It is like trying to hit a bullseye, on a foggy day, during an eclipse, while blindfolded. If everything aligns perfectly we get iPhones, if not, we get New Coke.

Reality-driven design at Catalyst: Ensuring product designs make it from the whiteboard to the production line

At Catalyst, our reality-driven product development is just that. Our ideation process, while creative and thought-provoking, is still grounded in reality and our designers and engineers take an intuitive approach—we like to understand the business constraints of our clients while we are brainstorming. A really great idea is only great if it fits within our client’s core competencies and can be designed, developed, produced, and sold cost effectively. 

Alex Osborn, the “father of brainstorming” was once quoted as saying “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one”. Maybe. But it is more efficient and cost-effective to just think up great solutions that can be executed in the first place.