We are now face to face with wicked problems. Childhood obesity, climate change, aging population, literacy—the scope, implications and rate of change of today's critical problems make them unlike anything we have faced before. Solutions to these wicked problems have the potential to change the way we live in the world.
To even begin to address such issues, we need people and organizations with the ability to innovate. Expertise in health care, education, and energy are not enough. Neither are superb analytical and creative thinking skills. Motivation, informed by beliefs in ability, is the critical ingredient we often ignore. Without believing in our ability to develop and implement innovative solutions that can address the world's challenges, we will not even act.
The ability to act is tied to a belief that it is possible to do so. Without a firm belief in our potential to develop and implement innovative solutions that can address these wicked challenges, what we call innovation self-efficacy, good or even great ideas are of no use at all.
What is innovation self-efficacy? And how do we develop these beliefs?
Innovation is the intentional implementation of novel and useful processes, products, or procedures designed to benefit society. Despite anticipated benefits, innovation work can be unpredictable, controversial, and in competition with current courses of action. Innovators must develop, modify, and implement ideas while navigating ambiguous problem contexts, overcoming setbacks, and persisting through uncertainty. Innovation self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to take part in these types of actions. Innovation self-efficacy and innovative action are mutually reinforcing. Positive feedback from innovative action builds confidence, which leads to more innovation behavior.
Innovation Self-efficacy ↔ Innovation Action
Building on Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura's framework, innovation self-efficacy develops in three primary ways: Social persuasion (being told you can do it), Vicarious learning (watching others do it), and Mastery experience (doing it).
Model: Social persuasion
Example: A product designer hearing her CEO giving a motivational pep talk at the launch of a new project to improve the lives of childhood diabetics. An interaction designer describing how he developed a new iphone app for weightloss on YouTube and telling his viewers that they can do it to.
Model: Vicarious learning
Example: An industrial designer reading his colleagues' Facebook post about improving local public transportation in their city and realizing that he has the same skills and ability to also make a change in his community. A design engineer viewing a new sustainable disposal system on a crowdfunding platform such as Kickstarter and seeing that she could come up with a better one.
Model: Mastery experiences
Example: A design student apprenticing in a design studio and building a water pump for an NGO in Africa. A graphic designer developing a logo for an innovative hand hygiene campaign for the Center for Disease Control.
Using this framework mixed with ten years of design, research, and consulting work with S&P 500, Stanford's d.school and Northwestern's Segal Design Institute, I identified six strategies for fostering innovation self-efficacy. I illustrate each strategy with an example from the field.
1. Structure learning for small wins and small failures
Beliefs about ability are constructed over time through small successful experiences. Though initial failures can challenge feelings of success and progress, being prepared for a combination of wins and failures throughout a project and tracking that process can help to illustrate that even the greatest challenges can be overcome through sustained effort.
A design team partnered with a local hospital to improve hand hygiene to reduce hospital acquired illnesses. Initially excited by this challenge, when they showed up at the hospital ready to observe the problem firsthand, they were promptly told by the staff that they were not allowed into the unit—the first "failure." They took a step back, talked with their hospital contact, and gained access to a different unit, and began observing hand hygiene practices during the night shift—the first "win." They found that by developing relationships with the nurses, they were able to engage in informal informational conversations during slow periods—another "win." The team noted each "win" and "failure" over the course of their project. After six weeks, several ideas for hand hygiene were generated and a provision patent was filed—a final "win." The collection of failures and wins were evidence of the progress the team made and demonstrated how they developed confidence to innovate in a domain where they were initially turned away at the door.
2. Reframe failed attempts as learning opportunities
The strategy of expecting and monitoring wins and failures goes along with diligent reflection on why some things work and others do not. In a supportive design and learning environment, failures can be reframed as opportunities for learning and design progress rather than an indication of failed performance.
A design team partnered with the YMCA to increase teenage program participation. The team talked directly with local teens to understand the barriers and found that they were often frustrated that the YMCA continued to treat them like kids rather than young adults. Excited about these concrete findings, the design team presented this information to the organization only to hear that the director was uninterested in changing his approach. Back in the studio, the design team shared their story and their feelings of failing at the design challenge. Their colleagues helped the team to shift their perception to emphasize what they had learned about organizational change and teen identity and how they could apply that to their next design challenge.
3. Reframe uncertainty as curiosity
People are often overwhelmed by uncertainty, and yet curiosity about things that are unknown can drive and support learning as a pleasurable experience. People find satisfaction closing the gap between what they want to know and what they know.
After a classmate experienced a devastating bike accident, a student team set out to increase bike safety on their local campus. They framed their design challenge in terms of behavioral change and became stuck thinking about how to get a student population who are concerned with how they look to wear unstylish headgear. The uncertainty of how to solve this problem hindered their progress until they found a pattern they wanted to know more about. Looking at their data, they became intensely curious about young adults who did wear their helmets but did not practice other safe behaviors, such as avoiding binge drinking and practicing safe sex. The desire to understand the behavioral dichotomy exhibited by some of focal users overcame the negative anxiety of the uncertainty.
4. Scope projects for ongoing authentic feedback rather than final evaluation
When designers receive immediate and authentic feedback on performance, they can link it directly to their actions. Feedback can come from seeing the work in process or from hearing those who are impacted by the work. This authentic feedback is motivating and meaningful for the designer and can inform reiterations of the design work throughout a design cycle. Conversely, designing while expecting a final evaluation from an outside party not directly related to the actual design (i.e. manager) can have dysfunctional consequences for intrinsic motivation and creativity.
A design team took on the challenge of reducing water use in cafeterias. They observed cafeteria workers using a lot of water to remove uneaten food from dishes students placed on a conveyer belt. In the machine shop, the team designed a dish rack that encouraged the cafeteria diners themselves to pre-scrape their plate—leaving less food for the cafeteria workers to remove. They quickly built a prototype and returned to the local cafeteria to test their idea. Within minutes, they were collecting data on the impact of their proposed solution. They shared the idea, prototype, and initial results with colleagues and facility managers in focus groups, collecting additional feedback on ways to further improve the solution.
5. Broadcast successes immediately
Sharing stories allows people to make sense of events and understand the values of their solution. Subsequent feedback on the stories and work that is shared reinforces confidence in the ability to innovate and creates a community of collaborators.
While on a trip to his hometown in Turkey, a student designer redesigned carrying baskets for men who worked in the markets there who suffered from back pain due to their heavy loads. Within a week of completing the project, the student created a one-minute video of his work and posted the link on his Facebook page. His social network and his extended network viewed the film and many posted comments encouraging him to continue his work. This video continues to be shown within his campus classes and groups as an example of how to quickly share innovation design work. While not all details of designs can be broadcast to maintain intellectual property, generic descriptions of activities may be.
6. Articulate a routine process for innovation
While innovations are, by definition, not routine, innovation processes may be. Processes give structure when facing the inevitable uncertainty inherent in innovation work. Though there are different pathways that will make sense for different projects and problems, allowing designers to have a recognizable and shared process will help them navigate through long-term complex work. People experience a sense of progress when engaged in an articulated design progress independently of whether they are meeting their objective goals within a stated timeline.
A design team took on the challenge of supporting people saving for retirement. The problem was open-ended and they were unsure how to start engaging with it. They went back to what they had learned in design school—referencing a familiar innovation process of first empathizing with the user. They began to observe people in their homes and talked with them about their retirement saving practices. When again they became overwhelmed by the amount of information they were gathering, they regained confidence by remembering that they were following a process that they had used before, and that had been used by many others before them and that the next step of their process was clear—although the solution to the problem may not have been. They developed persons and a journey map and presented these to the client.
Whether in education or in industry, fostering innovation self-efficacy is ongoing and requires hands on innovation work, encouraging supporters, and learning through others doing innovation work. Yet, the payoff is potentially great. Designers can put these six strategies to use in their organization to support innovation self-efficacy. With strong beliefs about ability, designers will tackle more wicked problems whose solutions can change our day-to-day lives.
The alternative is for designers to allow organizations to continue to train, and positively reward employees who apply knowledge to solve domain-specific problems with known right answers, indirectly fostering fears of complexity and failure. Employees become motivated by the reward structure and they gain confidence in their ability to apply their learned expertise to assigned problems that have a correct answer. This process inadvertently develops Innovation Distrust—or disbelief in our ability to create innovative solutions to complex and ill-structured challenges. Innovation distrust and routine action are mutually reinforcing.
Innovation Distrust↔Routine Action
Building innovation distrust occurs at the expense of building innovation self-efficacy. More worrisome, this fostering of innovation distrust is in all organizations from elementary schools to S&P 500 companies.
Today, designers are uniquely positioned to motivating organizations to develop and implement solutions to messy ill-structured problems and work effectively with others with unique domain expertise. They will do so when they fully believe they can and great ideas will no longer be stuck on post-it notes.
About Liz Gerber
Liz Gerber is a designer, entrepreneur, and an academic passionate about building innovation capacity in organizations. She currently teaches design and innovation at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University where she co-founded Design for America, an award winning national network of designers using human centered design to make social and local impact. Prior, she was a teacher and researcher at the Stanford d.school and worked in the toy industry in San Francisco. She lives in Evanston, Il but can be found online at www.lizgerber.com