Creating a culture of innovation in the enterprise is not an easy task. Many companies have tried but either a lack of resources or pressure to continue developing existing products get in the way and these attempts die before they take hold.

Management believes that concurrent development on improvements to existing product and a focus on innovation can happen within the same team, however these teams are not properly supported or staffed. What makes up an innovation team is also very different from a product design team. The solution is to create a separate team that can bridge the gap and help the existing product teams.

Innovation is a strategic activity that takes place across multiple groups, and is eventually owned by the team that can carry it forward to develop a proof of concept or other deliverable. Since innovation varies in type and scope it is important to define the goals upfront, even though those goals may change many times. If it is determined that innovation activities should be driven by UX, then it is best to setup that team with a specific mandate and differentiate that team in its goals and practices from the rest of the UX group. In order for this team to be successful it must be allowed to operate independently without the restrictions dictated by an existing product or process.

In some organizational constructs these teams are sometimes referred to as Service Design teams. They are given flexibility, structure and ability to make decisions, making them especially equipped to run innovation activities. Their proximity to clients, internal stakeholders and consumers/users of the product will give an advantage to a service design team over other teams that may be a step removed. If team members are accustomed to walking in the customer shoes, performing user research, learning the internal processes of the product, reaching out to the clients and internal resources then this team in an enviable position to succeed.


There are consideration to be made when setting up a team

  1. Create a base team – At a minimum a service design team must include 5 people, a project lead, a senior UX practitioner, a fast UI designer, a dev lead along with an even faster developer. The entire team must be ready to pounce and not be afraid to blue-sky;
  2. Augment the team – It would be unrealistic to expect this team to operate without subject matter expertise. Create an extended team from different groups, internal or external to the organization, that can bring specific skills to the effort including SMEs and stakeholders that will fund and champion the project;
  3. Stay small – The main team needs to stay small, in the spirit of an agile delivery, it is easier to move when the team is small and comprised entirely of pigs (fully committed with skin in the game) vs. chickens (only involved);
  4. Pivot quickly and consistently – The team must make pivots a welcome way of life. Often when blue-skying it is easy to go too far in any direction, and many of these directions may not yield the desired outcomes;
  5. Welcome quick failure – It is critical to be committed in any path chosen, however, it is also important to recognize when that path has lead you astray, reorganize, refocus and keep moving;
  6. Remove distraction – It is ok to add or remove members from the team as needed, if a team member is not effective on a stream or during a specific phase of the process it is perfectly ok to re-allocate them;
  7. Define workshop goals – There are many schools of thought out there as to what may be the best structure for a workshop, therefore it is most important to define what you hope to achieve from the exercises and structure the workshop around the goal;
  8. Test often with users – Since you are often venturing into uncharted territory it is important to hit the pause button at regular intervals and spend a day or two testing your ideas with users in the field. It is not critical to have a polished product ready but have something to show that is strong enough to provoke a reaction;
  9. Lastly, crit often – There is really no reason why every aspect of the solution shouldn’t be analyzed and dissected. Post your work on walls for everyone to see and comment, most importantly embrace the feedback.


How do you identify projects that should be tackled by the team

When starting out it is critical to evaluate potential innovation threads and determine whether they fit an innovation track or if they are product enhancements best served by the product design team. As a potential requests can result in a larger product enhancement run one or more workshops with business stakeholders and target clients to define personas, the story and the final goal, with the understanding that as the product evolves things will change. When looking for a thread, often times they are present when a breakdown in a service or a system occurs. Additionally, conduct specific value-in-context research activities with potential co-dev partners to observe the ever-changing needs of consumers/users of the product vertical and identify future consumption patterns within it. CABs (Customer or Client Advisory Boards) usually play a large role when determining innovation opportunities.

Service Innovation allows us to redefine ‘service’ as more than just adding a service to a product but as “the co-creation of value by actors combining and exchanging resources within value constellations” 1. In other words, service innovation involves finding new patterns of collaboration between actors and products in specific contexts. Look at strategic value not as top-down or dictated by the business but by focusing on value-in-context that is constantly changing.

Research plays a key role in all service innovation efforts, teams need to adopt human-centered design practices that focus on the user and how she operates within her environment and not exclusively on how they think and feel, because that will only offer a partial answer to the problem. Empathy maps, in which the design team attempts to immerse themselves into someone else’s mind, do not account for the other person’s world and its complexities. It is a one sided view of the experience. It is also complicated by the belief that empathy maps carry some kind of hard truth. The only way to deliver value-in-use is to observe users in their environment completing tasks.


Build a team and if you don’t succeed try it again

Creating a successful team is a process and most likely you will not get it right the first time around nor the second. I definitely didn’t but that hasn’t stopped me, sometimes management gets in the way and other times the team members you selected don’t display the right traits for the task they are assigned. Service Innovation Design is equal parts science and art and must coexist maintaining that balance.

1Lucy Kimbell is the author of The Service Innovation Handbook.