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Can we design for breakthrough innovation?

I posed this question about a week ago on twitter and facebook, and you shared back some amazing gems!

The resounding response was “yes,” we can create conditions so that innovation is much more likely to occur. Themes included creating cultures of play and emotional safety, challenging assumptions, giving permission to try new things (and fail), and using storytelling to spark new thinking and locate yourself in an emergent narrative.

Below are the thoughts and references you shared – thanks to all contributors!

I have had tons of conversation with my chosen brother Steve, who invented a ton of breakthrough technology during his time at Bell Labs. He would say: create real play spaces and then after a jam filter down to what might be possible, encourage serendipity – mix unlikely people together, look at peripheral fields, create places for people to “randomly” bump into each other and start jamming on an idea, a biomimicry is helpful – how does nature solve it, ask really interesting questions and do so from a variety of vantage points, cultivate a culture of curiosity. To that I would add – create a sense of spaciousness. Breakthrough innovation doesn’t happen on a clock or within a budget. And when it does, adoption of the breakthrough can take a decade, if it is truly disruptive.
– via Jean Russell, @NurtureGirl


21st Century Wealth-Generating Ecologies and an Infrastructure for Open Everything



1. Design for interoperability first, then design for what works best for you. <- this is not a guarantee, but the approach seemed to increase innovative outcomes for our group, so this can only work when people resonate with a collective world view

2. Share the model and the render: Paul gave an example from digital animation, where usually the rendered output is shared. However, sharing the model that is used to create the rendered output (like SVG code and SVG render) gives people foundations to build on your work, and understand how you did it.

Beyond that, creating whitespace, and making the time and expending the energy to explore as part of the design process, and grounding that in solid theoretical foundations, will increase the chances of innovation emerging from your design approaches. In musical circles, it is called “jamming”.

Plus, looking for complementarity, and emerging new niches from your efforts to satisfy previous niches.

– via Sam Rose, @SamRose




Kedge developed an innovation program/model that launched this past year that teaches participants to operate and design within the new context/rules of the “postnormal” landscape. Central themes include leveraging complexity (instead of attempting to kill it), transdisciplinary meshing of previously siloed disciplines and ideas, bringing big data full circle into qualitative pattern and sense-making, transformative invention replacing iterative innovation, discovering long-curve opportunities through natural growth models, and breaking biases and assumptions that hinder new-environment innovation. Under ideal conditions, the model is also used with a diverse audience. This is modeled on the “pull” of the future.
– via Frank W. Spencer IV, @frankspencer




I’ve been working with Lance Weiler on achieving breakthroughs through emergent narrative (we’ve used it successfully for both business constructs and purely cause-related or civic stuff). The design is frameworked for “failure”, “unraveling” and adaptation. There are few iterations of that framework based on the business, social or cultural context, but essentially you set a goal, split the group up and assign story development pieces, give folks a space to spitball, act out and emote/express, you coordinate actions that end up defining roles (archetypes) and you weave a narrative together that results in some sort of output and/or identifiable problem-solving process. Sometimes it’s just a new way to think about things. We just did a version as a lab for filmmakers in Australia, but have applied this successfully to product design, org improvement, branding, and policy formation, etc. in different parts if the world — transcends most language and cultural barriers. Check out Reboot Stories, DIY Days and WSWP as examples. You can also check out Lance’s course “Building Storyworlds in 21c” which is a Columbia U-based open curriculum which uses a lot of these open design/breakthrough innovation principles.
– via Gunther Sonnenfeld, @goonth


It’s been my experience that you can create/design conditions (via innovation principles, “whole-brain” practices, environment, new cultural norms, and other stuff) that dramatically increase the chances for breakthroughs to emerge. Agree with James it can’t be forced…designing the “fertile soil” makes its emergence more likely.

That includes vastly different ways of thinking, being, embodying, perceiving, and expressing (new foundations) than we currently see in most work environments – which are designed on foundations for control and maintenance.

I believe designing for breakthroughs includes the willingness for the unpredictable messiness of emergence…and that can be scary for a lot of people. While there is no way to design for comfort in emergence, you can design for emotional safety…that helps open the field and tap into the potentiality-in-waiting.

Also, while one might design for breakthrough, the breakthrough may occur seemingly randomly several iterations later…and may not immediately seem connected to the initial design. It’s more like we can co-design in partnership with the natural creative process to allow for more chance of breakthroughs..but we can’t control it. I believe if the designer is not surprised by what emerges, and has no space for the unknown embedded into the design, he or she is probably not designing for breakthroughs.

(With all that said, I know “breakthrough innovation” means different thing to different people)
via Michelle James, @CreatvEmergence


Nurturing a Vibrant Culture to Drive Innovation

– via Bill Veltrop


I believe you can design for assumption challenging and for permission to try new things. If you don’t start by designing for those, no other investment will be worthwhile.
– via Daniel Rasmus, @DanielWRasmus


Innovation is often defined as a new idea with a valuable outcome. The problem is that you cannot solve one equation with two unknowns. That is why it may seem unpredictable and we’re left with a shrug of the shoulders and “Ya know it when ya see it” resolve. On the other hand, the proverbial Ah-Ha moment is really just a very rapid (instantaneous, perhaps) change in your knowledge of something. Grand innovations are simply a series of ah ha moments. If you set out to create new ideas with valuable outcomes, you’ll fail. But if you set out to manufacture ah-ha moments, there could a be an Ah Ha moment awaiting you, and so on.
– via Dan Robles, @ingenesist


For me, it’s a matter of getting close enough to the humans around me to find the design that was already there, waiting to be discovered by us together. A dance of revealing design, not designing per se. I’ve been saying it for 8 years and it still sounds woo woo to my ears. But hey, it works.
– via Lori Kane, @CollectiveSelf


Create the open testbed/biotope/pull platform for society that will “raise flags” whenever problems/opportunities are found and you’ll have it I believe:

John Hagel: Recognizing the Power of Pull

– via Christer Hellberg


values + design + implementation + story = meaningful contribution (comprehensibility/accessibility/availability/attractivity affect how wide/deep the impact can be)
– via Jarno M. Koponen, @ilparone


..if creating a design for breakthrough innovation it would be a push strategy… a few people come up with an idea which is then expected to lead to the result… alternatively there would be the pull strategy… where a facilitation framework is established that allows innovation to emerge… this approach doesn’t interfere… instead it supports the creative process… and this can come only from within each individual… ideally the framework is a combination of a technical solution and story-telling… the reason why story-telling is so important is that each one of us can find her/his unique role in the whole… just like in a theater play… it is not a story that is already written… but a story that we are to write together into the future…
Like Giorgio Bertini said: ‘Map-patterns-based action learning, learning from and acting upon, action learning all along an spiral of social learning change, facilitated by maps-patterns, etc.’ …
so maps could be the framework for individual stories to emerge into collective sense making to then bring forth breakthrough innovation!
– via Joachim Lohkamp, @JockelLohkamp


Innovation for innovation’s sake is only of interest if its discovery leads to the uncovering of previously taken for granted assumptions about the way things have to be, and what we need to tolerate. For innovation to be valuable it has to make things better. In other words it has to address a real problem, or tackle a real missed opportunity. It is in systematically uncovering these problems and missed opportunities that breakthroughs can be found day after day. When you deeply understand a problem you are more than 50% of the way to coming up with an adequate solution. The solution itself may not be the breakthrough – but the results will be.
– via Paul Codd MacDonald


I think a lot of the conversation here has gone to the level of the cultural and organizational underpinnings of breakthrough innovation, e.g. Gore, Bell Labs etc. That is very important and definitely required to enable repeated success. Tools and frameworks can also play a role if they enable people to structure their thinking about where and how to innovate more clearly. Innovation consultancy Doblin, part of the company where I work (Monitor), has a framework called the Ten Types of Innovation that seeks to do just that and may be of interest: http://www.doblin.com/thinking/
I recently had the opportunity to introduce the tool to a group of city government innovators and have them use it to work on the different sketch ideas they had developed for making new and existing city services more efficient, effective and responsive to citizens needs. I was impressed by the value it provided people who were not used to thinking creatively about their roles and in many cases had little experience working together to push their innovation thinking from the basics of an idea to somewhere more ambitious and potentially of breakthrough potential. There’s plenty of materials at the link for people to play with it themselves
– via Michael Costigan


If there is [a way to design for breakthrough innovation], it’s built on open standards, extensible APIs and gracefully degrading layers.

I don’t really think we *do* innovation. It’s something that happens when conditions are right. We can make it more likely. We can consciously chase it. But for most folks innovating isn’t a defined enough process that they can sit down and decide to innovate (at least not usefully).

Innovating is kind of like falling in love. You can’t chase it too hard. The best you can do is set the scene and work at the edges, but the actual happening is really hard to force.

– via James Vasile, @jamesvasile


I have a hunch it has to do with tagging stuff for exaptive remixes, related ideas adapted from a post a while back:

1) Garden for “idea seedlings”

This might be a visually engaging place to check on what initiatives are sprouting in an online or actual community.

Visual option – show a plant for each project in the garden. Its size, shape, number of buds/seed pods, etc. can convey useful info (eg kinds of desired cross pollination opportunities)

Alternative – “dreamcatcher” visual metaphor. A radargraph in each dreamcatcher could show the extent to which a project team deems its project to need inputs to become “alive and whole”

2) An Exaptive Evolution game

This game could show nourishing resources (tagged how-to scripts, specialists, precedents, etc) that are available for initiatives growing in the Idea seedlings garden.

The more any chunk is accepted by/integrated into specific initiatives in the ecosystem, the higher the “score” and rewards for those who created the resource, and those who proposed its use.
– via Mark Frazier, @openworld




More on exaptation from a book that keeps popping up on my radar —http://growchangelearn.blogspot.com.au/2011/01/getting-psyched-for-exaptation.html Also check out Steven Johnson’s other patterns listed on that post. And of course the notion of Labs and Incubation provide a fairly popular means of innovation. The best we can do online, for now, would be to nurture an incubation space with shared processes and tools, sorta like this idea tagging that Mark Frazier suggests. Innovation would begin with derivation and discussing the ideas of others, to helps us get in touch with our own.
– via Dan RD, @ddrrnt


Re innovation: Seeing things others do not see, having a vision, tenacity, a supportive environment, others willing to try the new thing, and some time/money resources are all part of it.
– via Bernd Nurnberger, @CoCreatr


The Lotus: a practical guide for authentic leadership toward sustainability (free PDF download)

– via Kirstin Ohm


From Twitter:

Design 4 conditions likely to lead there, yes 🙂
See slides 19-28, transferable to any decentralized, multiple-pts-of-engagement system



if design = allow, then yes 🙂
innovation is sitting in the subtle plane, already existing. allowing implies receptivity as opposed to resistance.
so, creating receptivity = designing for breakthrough innovation … same with teaching or creating anything.

You can encourage and set a context, but you cannot design for breakthrough innovation. If you could, play the lottery.

poverty, terror, diverse interdisciplinary groups, alcohol, and six months of getting to know the people you’re working with

Absolutely! design for 1000s of diverse kinds of innovation again & again & again. One will eventually be a breakthrough.