Innovation By Design: 6 Steps To Driving Real Change

Richard Fagbolagun

Richard Fagbolagun is one of the Co-Founders of Comuzi, a groundbreaking design agency that works with the world’s most creative brands to explore and prototype new ideas for human-centred technology. We met with Richard to learn about:
– Why some teams struggle to drive through real change
– The practical measures they adopt to overcome these barriers
– Why every team is limited by its ability to communicate hard truths.
– Why leaders need to be willing to champion (the right kind of) failure
– The ethical dilemmas posed by AI

Richard Fagbolagun Boss to Boss Interview Profile Photo

There is a great deal of talk about change within B2B markets, but often it fails to translate into action. If you were to sit down with a leader of one of these firms, what question would you ask in order to ascertain their appetite for true change?

My question would be – “what are you currently doing to address the top 3 problems in your organisation?” Every organisation has problems, so what I’d be trying to ascertain is whether their attitude to change is based on substance, or just talk.

To be clear, however, change does not always need to be radical. Humans crave stability so for many organisations, particularly large ones, small steps are far more constructive than great leaps. By taking an incremental approach we can ensure we get the buy-in for our specific project, whilst simultaneously up-skilling those involved in the process of change, from user research to concept testing. This broader education is hugely important as it opens people’s minds to the value of learning through design.

Change management is of course nothing new. What are some of the things you do that may be overlooked by traditional change management techniques?

1. The Parking Lot

At the beginning of the process we ask everyone to share their ideas and explain that they will be placed in the “parking lot” while we work through the research phase. This is really important for a couple of reasons; it prevents those with the loudest voices from pushing through their preconceived agendas, but also reassures everyone that their ideas are valued and will be revisited once we have more information. At which point, these ideas will either be validated or challenged.

2. Digital Sticky-Notes

A tool we’ve been using during Covid-19 is what we call the Digital Sticky-Note, through which individuals share their thoughts and ideas, interactively, typically using Google Slides which has been fundamental to our remote, real-time collaboration. This really helps to ensure the more introverted members, often the source of the most valuable ideas, also get their opinions across.

3. Check-ins

Perhaps the most important thing anyone leading a change programme can do is perform regular check-ins with each member of the team. We ask participants what they think about the project, what concerns they have and what do they think we should be doing differently. Lack of open communication is the greatest obstacle any project faces, so if we encourage people to speak honestly then we can address issues before they’ve had a chance to escalate.

4. Three dimensional questioning

Understanding how a person feels is far more important than what they think, as the former will often drive the latter, so we want to ask questions that identify the underlying emotions rather than just the superficial rationalisation of those emotions.  One way of doing so is through three dimensional questioning, which involves asking the same question but from multiple perspectives, such as:
* What does success mean for you professionally?
* What do you believe success means for the organisation?
* What does success mean for you personally?

By asking these open questions from a range of angles, you’ll bring out a far more holistic view of how they think, and more importantly, how they feel.

5. Mixed method research approach

While it’s important to engage with people to identify problems & conceptualise potential solutions, as humans we sometimes don’t understand our own behaviour or environments, even if we excel at rationalising it. Therefore, in order to build up a more complete and accurate picture we use mixed research methods. For example, we’re currently working on a project where we have carried out remote focus groups, interviews & location studies in order to understand people’s lived experiences from both a vocal and visual perspective, providing far more insight than we would have obtained within an artificial setting.

6. Allow room for testing & feedback

While reimagining or co-creating a product, testing prototypes is vital in providing a continuous feedback loop. If all we did was follow convention or build on assumptions without testing alternatives then we would add little real value.

While design thinking is a concept that can be taught, some peoples’ brains just seem more naturally aligned to that “first principles” way of seeing the world. What traits do you believe these people share?

These people tend to be highly rational, almost philosophical, and possess a willingness to change rather than clinging to a particular way of thinking or ideology. Above all, they’re prepared to hear uncomfortable truths.

That being said, if an organisation is structured in such a way that rewards caution, not even your Steves or Elons are going to drive through meaningful change. Any transformation programme is predicated on the freedom to test, fail & learn, which is why a culture of innovation has to come from the top.

So what would you do if you took over as leader of a large organisation with the goal of making it better able to adapt?

The first thing I would focus on would be diversity as it helps avoid groupthink & diverse organisations statistically perform better. I would also make a point of celebrating failure, or learning through design & getting the long term feedback beneficial to the organisation. This is anathema to most CEO’s whose performance is based on short term commercial metrics. Organisational cultures take years to change, however, so for the sake of getting things done I’d also consider setting up a separate entity that was free to operate more like a start-up or flexible R&D team.

“The power of status quo is not to be underestimated.”

For most leaders, there are so many priorities and true innovation is pretty far down that list, so it takes an event like Covid-19 to force change. Take home working, for example; there’s nothing revelatory about the fact that people can be trusted & productive from home, but it took an existential crisis for large organisations to give it a go. The power of status quo is not to be underestimated.

Technology in isolation can take a very narrow approach to solving problems and fail to account for broader issues of culture and ethics. How can these more abstract considerations be built into technology and who should get to decide how?

One of the questions we’re always asking ourselves is “what are the possible unintended consequences of this technology?”

A computer outputs what you put into it, so if you’re not training the AI system based on a wider view of the world or you’re training it with narrow data sets then naturally it’s going to be biased. Usually the solution can be relatively easy to implement but the question is “Does anyone actually care?” More often than not, it tends to fall upon external organisations and communities to pressure firms to address the issue.

As for who should get the final say on how these broader considerations are built into technology, it’s an almost impossible question as the issue of ethics is open to so much debate. For example, in the UK we would probably agree mass surveillance is ‘wrong’, but other cultures perceive the issue very differently. Ultimately, economics will drive it all. If it’s in a company’s financial interest to do A rather than B, then that’s what they’ll do.