Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sushi Suzuki, concept developer for Panasonic in Germany. Previously, he founded d.thinking Ponts ParisTech while teaching design innovation at École des Ponts ParisTech he was the Executive Director of the ME310 program at Stanford University.
Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of hosting many design thinking workshops and short courses in various contexts around the world. The format and content for the workshops and short courses are similar (1~3 days, team project based), but there is one large contextual difference in that participants in workshops are not graded while students in short courses are.
I am a firm believer in learning by doing, and as such, in my workshops and courses, participants and students work on various innovation challenges to practice their observation, synthesis, and ideation skills. Recently, I’ve come to the realization that the project results from the workshops tended to be more wild, creative, and challenging while project results from the courses tended to be more conservative, incremental, and at times pedestrian. While it’s difficult to judge results from such a short project, I find the results from the workshops to be more interesting and innovative even if unrefined and seemingly unrealistic. If I was trying to achieve some breakthrough innovation, the workshop results would be a much better starting point in my opinion. It’s easier to make a wild idea more realistic than to make a conservative idea more innovative.
Playing to win vs. playing not to lose
Ichiro, the Japanese baseball player, once commented that in the US, players played to win while in Japan, players played not to lose. I think the same dynamic is in effect here. Students in courses are afraid to be wrong (even if there aren’t any right or wrongs in my courses) and as such, they present more conservative ideas out of fear that the wilder ideas may seem unrealistic. Workshop participants on the other hand are freer from repercussions and as a result, they can be more imaginative and challenging.
Extending this out to the real world, there are some implications that need to be considered in trying to design innovative organizations and executing innovation initiatives. If people have the fear of failure because their wellbeing is closely linked to the results of the project or initiative, it will undoubtedly force them to be more conservative most likely leading to uninteresting results. Some companies have taken note of this and have tried to minimize the fear of failure from their employees. W. L. Gore and Associates has been known to celebrate project cancellations to send a message that because something didn’t work out, it’s not necessarily a failure.
While such initiatives are commendable, there can be difficulties in implementing something like this where the fear of failure is not only part of the corporate culture, it’s part of the national culture such as in my home country of Japan or my adopted country Germany.
An alternative approach to disconnecting fear from failure could be to take the innovation challenges beyond the corporate walls to outside institutions whose responsibilities and dependencies are inherently limited. I believe that one of the many advantages of design and innovation consultancies is that their success is partially disconnected from their clients’. While successful projects could mean more business in the future, failures won’t damage the consultant or consultancy in the same way an employee or manager could be damaged. That with more procedural freedom is a great recipe for innovative work.
Another place to take innovation initiatives is academia. While there are many projects unfit for students due to the technological complexity or confidentiality issues, as long as the students’ grades aren’t too directly linked to client satisfaction, they can be a lot more flexible and imaginative than hand-cuffed employees.
I’m not advocating the complete abandonment of accountability and responsibility, but there are times when such things could be obstructions in trying to accomplish innovative work. Like with everything else in the company, organization structure, work processes, and motivation schemes need to be designed to fit the task at hand.
About Sushi Suzuki
is a concept developer for Panasonic R&D Center Germany in Frankfurt where he works with external partners to develop new ideas in
As a practitioner of the Stanford-IDEO design methods, he has worked on various design challenges ranging from video game controllers to developing world education tools and new radio segments for NPR. He was also one of the founding members of i-kimono.com
, a Japanese start-up company that handles antique kimono and accessories online. Artist by nature, Engineer by training, and Designer by desire, Sushi is always thinking of new ways to do the old things better. Sushi holds a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and B.A. in Studio Arts from Rice University.