Driving Design Innovation In-House: Part Two

By Andy Epstein

July 17, 2012

Mervin Kelly, the CEO of Bell Labs who led the organization during its most creative and innovative period, championed six business practices that are also at the core of the design process and mindset.

Part one of this two-part essay examined how the first three practices—recruiting the best and the brightest, creating multidisciplinary teams and forcing change encounters—relate to in-house designers. The second part of this essay explores the remaining three practices.

Mixing Theory with Implementation

Mervin Kelly knew that in order to foster true innovation he would have to integrate theory into the engineering and product development process. To achieve this goal, Kelly hired both engineers and theoretical scientists and researchers, and he placed them in the same working environment. He wasn’t looking for incremental product improvements; he was after real breakthroughs. And that’s exactly what he got.

Designers working in corporations are entirely capable of concepting a project and producing it. However, it’s primarily the former skill—the ability to draw on right-brain aptitudes—that makes designers uniquely valuable to their organizations. This is because most clients approach their design problems analytically, looking to the past for solutions. They rely on competitors’ successes or prior internal solutions to similar problems to shape new deliverables. This approach often results in designs that are safe but not innovative.

When in-house designers have the opportunity to be involved in the strategic process prior to the implementation of a strategy, they can bring new approaches and come up with innovative solutions, engaging in creative thinking to produce groundbreaking results.

Granting Autonomy

The engineers and scientists at Bell Labs were given an unparalleled degree of freedom to pursue personal projects. This resulted not in aimless, unproductive tinkering or dead-end vanity projects, but in the creation of a plethora of profitable patents and products for the organization.

Designers, when afforded similar opportunities for autonomy, do the same. They produce breakthrough designs in shorter periods of time than they do when they are being micromanaged by clients. In-house departments at Fossil, Starbucks, Nike, Target and Morningstar—all companies that deeply value design—are powerhouses precisely because they are trusted to do their job with little interference from other departments. It took perseverance, commitment and savvy on the part of their leadership to achieve that independence, but it paid off for both the creative teams and their companies.

Providing the Time Necessary for True Innovation

Kelly exhibited courage and insight when he established a culture that allowed his team a seemingly open-ended amount of time to pursue their projects. Although this approach yielded amazing outcomes, few organizations have the fortitude to embrace this practice.

For in-house designers, this has necessitated sacrificing opportunities to create great design in order to meet expedited timelines. Designers are forced to resort to “bag-of-tricks” solutions. Admittedly, not all assignments warrant the problem definition, research and prototyping of a truly robust iterative design process. However, there are some projects that do. The key is to pick battles carefully, identifying the high-profile, high-impact projects and fighting for the adequate time allotments in the project schedule.

Designers are like research scientists and engineers—they have the potential to make significant contributions to their companies and they need flexible, nurturing environments. Bell Labs offers a striking example of the benefits, in terms of innovation and productivity, that organizations can reap when they find the right people and place them in the right type of environment. The same holds true for an in-house department. As a community, in-house designers must advocate for precisely that combination.

Driving Design Innovation In-House: Part One