Every technology company in today’s market, including SAP, has an innovation problem. While many of these companies struggle to develop enough solutions to even give the impression they are innovators, SAP has too much innovation for its customers to digest easily. And the problem only promises to worsen.
The list of innovations starts, of course, with SAP HANA and big data, and moves quickly from there to: Ariba with business networks, Sybase and Syclo with mobility, and SuccessFactors and SAP Jam with talent management and social collaboration. And that’s just a few of the options.
All of this is good, though, right? After all, at least in theory, you can’t have too much innovation. Except that for many customers, this much innovation — with the potential to dramatically change existing business processes and help engender new ones — is hard to absorb. It can be difficult to determine how innovation will be put to work, or, all too often, not put to work.
SAP’s solution to this problem is in itself relatively innovative, though in a kind of “isn’t that obvious” way. The innovation is called Design Thinking, a concept that has been in use since the 1980s. While the term is used so much around SAP that it’s turning into a genuine buzzword, the use of Design Thinking in the context of enabling customers to workshop their next innovation isn’t buzzwordy at all.
In fact, a Design Thinking workshop might be just the thing every company needs to make innovation a part of its corporate culture.
Making the Workshop Concept Work
The guiding principle behind a Design Thinking workshop is this: truly game-changing innovation is a group effort, requiring input and participation from the widest set of stakeholders possible. Those stakeholders have to be freed up to think as far outside of the box as possible, while still staying focused on what is needed and what is possible. And the stakeholders need to be guided by a team of professional catalysts who can help sift through the good and bad ideas and help translate them into something not just doable, but game-changing as well.
The fact is that this concept of workshopping isn’t new or particularly original — if you’ve ever been to an off-site meeting, where everyone is supposedly disconnected from their day-to-day routine and connected to each other for the purpose of brainstorming a new product or strategy, you get the general concept.
What is original is that SAP is baking this concept of a workshop into its engagements with customers around new capabilities and concepts, such as SAP HANA, as a way to not only unleash customers’ internal creativity but also help SAP understand where it can go with some of these new innovations.
Solving Big Data Problems
Perhaps the best domain for understanding the value of Design Thinking can be seen in its use with SAP HANA, particularly in the context of a big data or analytics project. One of the problems plaguing the business world is the creeping realization that companies are far better at collecting data than they are at putting it to good use. In fact, amassing huge quantities of data turns out to be quite easy — 30 years of experience building massive data warehouses came in handy when big data began to rear its head.
However, turning a few petabytes of data into something that is actually useful is a much harder feat than just spinning up massive amounts of information in a data warehouse. The main problem is that there are very few data scientists who understand the nitty-gritty of complex business processes, and even fewer end users, process experts, and process owners who understand how to use big data effectively. The end result is two groups that lack a common means of communication trying to have a conversation about discovering new capabilities, and, through no particular fault of their own, failing miserably.
What many companies are discovering is that these two groups of stakeholders — as well as many others — need to work together in a closer degree of collaboration and discovery than ever before. And this shouldn’t be about a known process — like invoice reconciliation or service escalation. It is about creating entirely new processes or new analyses that never existed before and aren’t necessarily even well-defined or understood.
That is what is intriguing about a Design Thinking workshop. While there may be what’s called a “wicked problem” to be solved (How do we fix an apparently unfixable customer churn problem, or prevent the spread of a dangerous disease in a hospital setting?) often the question on the table is much less well-defined. Particularly in the big data domain: What new business processes can we create from our investments in big data that will significantly affect the company’s bottom line?
Creating a Safe Environment for Innovation
Either way, a Design Thinking workshop can do a lot to get a company moving past its own corporate inertia and siloed modes of thinking toward a much more innovative outcome. How a workshop does this is relatively straightforward: By assembling the different stakeholders and providing them with a “safe” environment to think creatively, a cross-pollination of ideas, perspectives, cultural and business requirements, and expertise can take place. With the right guidance, that cross-pollination serves up innovative solutions to wicked problems that otherwise might have been impossible if the individuals involved had endeavored to come up with a solution on their own.
The quality of the solution that can potentially be created isn’t the only benefit. With the right stakeholders in the room, and with a well-designed research phase that deliberately seeks out input from all other potential stakeholders, users, and decision makers, the results of a Design Thinking workshop have the potential not just for success but for high rates of user adoption.
This constitutes a form of risk mitigation that is much needed in the world of large enterprise projects. Nothing fails faster or harder than a project that lacks buy-in and user acceptance, and a well-designed Design Thinking workshop can provide an important level of risk insurance that otherwise would have been largely impossible to put in place.
It’s important to note that Design Thinking workshops carry their own risks: the results are hard to predict, and it’s not necessarily a given that every Design Thinking workshop will produce a killer project. The need to have all the critical stakeholders together — sometimes up to 20 employees participate — through a two- or three-day workshop places a significant opportunity cost on the whole exercise.
Finally, there is always the temptation to streamline a workshop by adding linear processes and goals, something that threatens the sanctity of the Design Thinking creative process itself. It’s understandable — when the costs are high, the stakes are even higher, and the outcome is uncertain — to try to put creativity in a box. But putting Design Thinking in a box is the kind of dead-end thinking that has made these outside-the-box workshops so very necessary.
Who Will Lead the Way?
In the end, it’s up to executive management to lead the way toward Design Thinking. Without their say-so and sponsorship, Design Thinking quickly becomes marginalized or doomed to fail. But the importance of this kind of creative process is so significant that one day soon we may be tempted to measure success by one important criterion: Do they get Design Thinking?