Bridging the Gap between Large Corporate Innovation Centers and Small Design Teams

Innovation centers have captured significant attention in recent years for their role as formalized institutions for driving innovation within large businesses. Digital design teams are their natural counterpart, driving innovation on a more personal level. They are almost a perfect match, but there are some large differences between the two. How can you bridge the gap, using them both in unison?

Devised as centers for accelerating the digital innovation process, innovation centers are now used by 38% of the world’s largest 200 companies, including household names such as BMW, McDonalds, and Ford.

corporate innovation centers - main mission
The Main Mission of Innovation Centers1

Driving innovation from within companies, digital design teams are key internal players in the development of human-centric innovation development. They are constantly looking for strategic cues from the outside to bring further innovation to the goals that they are responsible for advancing.

How, exactly, can the boundaries between these two units be delineated? And, with so much seeming potential for synergy, how can they learn to work in harmony to translate the sometimes lofty ideas and insights from the world of innovation planning into concrete realization in the form of human-led innovation advances?

corporate innovation centers - iconCorporate Innovation Centers and Digital Design Teams: Quick Definitions

Innovation centers could be defined, succinctly, as dedicated centers of excellence for the leading acceleration of innovation. Deloitte states that the purpose of their innovation centers is “to push the limits of our ideas and insights on some of the biggest challenges facing businesses and global communities today”. Alternatively, when looked at from the viewpoint of those analyzing them, they can be identified based upon some of their salient features.

These include, most obviously, a dedicated focus on innovation as well as a separateness, (usually in staff, funding, and location) from day-to-day corporate operations.

But the one key key precept that sets corporate innovation centers apart from business units (besides, of course, the literal yardstick of the physical distance that often separates commercial and innovation centers) is the psychological freedom from near-term pressures that those that work in them are able to enjoy.

This mean that corporate innovation centers are at liberty to work on the kind of high-level, strategic business thinking that is often impossible to spend significant time on in the day-to-day grind of commercial life.

corporate innovation centers - company journey
The seven stages of growing and diffusing design-based innovation culture2

Digital design teams are innovation drivers responsible for leveraging a human-centered approach to innovation that is informed by the desires of behaviors of people. McKinsey describes it thus: “The difference with design-driven companies is that they seek to go far beyond understanding what customers want to truly uncovering why they want it.” Human-centric digital transformation and design takes as its goal the development of propositions that will be not only commercially fruitful but also attractive to customers on a human level, taking into account the full spectrum of needs and desires that motivates their behavior as consumers.

corporate innovation centers - integration iconIntegration is the Key Challenge

It may seem, at first glance, as if innovation centers and digital design teams are perfect complements for one another.

However there are some key differences in philosophy between the two units that can sometimes make achieving a seamless and harmonious workflow between the two more challenging than those planning the broad innovation effort would ideally like.

corporate innovation centers - columbus regional health center
Columbus Regional Health Innovation Center

Innovation programs are typically designed to improve established methods of business or operational procedures. They are frequently tasked with brainstorming solutions to problems that have evaded the resolutional abilities of internal leaders or with injecting further disruptive change to models that have proved expeditious. Like digital design teams, they can function as semi-external and autonomous parts of the broader organization. Unlike digital design teams, their development of innovation solutions is rooted in a task-and-report methodology that emanates to and from central management. Nevertheless, their frame of reference for what innovation projects are expedient to develop is rooted firmly within the organization.

Digital design teams, on the other hand, adopt a firmly human-centric approach to the innovation development process. This process often leverages techniques such as observing, ideating, and interviewing those ‘sponsors’ that are part of the process under scrutiny to identify what could best be changed to better serve their needs and maximize engagement with a business’s target clientele.

corporate innovation centers - Google
Google is just one of many companies with dedicated innovation hubs

Unlike the rise and growth of formalized corporate innovation centers, the entire development of the philosophy of ‘digital humanism’ grew out of a realization that innovation development methods focused solely on addressing business needs (such as requirement analysis) are necessarily limited in their ability to fully apprehend the depth of the change that could drive an organization forward.

For example, while a spike in uninstall rates following a feature roll-out could be taken as strong evidence that its introduction was not a commercially advantageous decision for the application makers, without actually convening focus groups to intently listen to the users’ opinions it is difficult for a business to know what kind of innovation is needed to drive the trend in the opposite direction.

Methodologies also provide clear grounds to separate between the two. While innovation centers rely primarily on experimentation and are often focused on creating industry partnerships to drive “big bet” or “game changing” innovations, digital design teams – operating on a more individual-centric level – are generally tasked with using observational skills to empower people to find solutions to business problems.

separation iconSeparation, then collaboration, achieves best results

Although these nuances may, at first glance, seem small, they can result in very significant differences in the kind of innovation solutions that each ecosystem proposes to similar issues.

Innovation centers and digital design teams operate in often overlapping orbits. Yet sadly, despite the potential benefits in marrying the kind of “10x” solutions that innovation centers specialize in proposing with the kind of ‘ear to the ground’, human-led and implementation-focused analyses that are the output of effective digital design teams, synergies that could result from the two working in harmony are often missed out on.

This is often due to a lack of know-how on the part of C-level executives, such as CIOs, as to how best to handle their coexistence.

The difference with design-driven companies is that they seek to go far beyond understanding what customers want to truly uncovering why they want it.

The solution, borne out by industry experience, is to firstly allow both ecosystems to flourish and mature individually.

Doing so will enable both to maximize their competencies and efficiency in developing the kind of solutions that they are best placed to offer the overall business unit. Keeping the two units operationally separate minimizes the potential for unhelpful politics and even open hostility between the two which could otherwise well come to regard one another as duplicative resources outputting overlapping perspectives.

One this has been achieved, developing resilient means for collaboration between the two avoids each unit becoming a silo, realizes synergies, and maximizes the global output of the innovation ‘community’ within a business. This involves clearly demarcating responsibilities and chartering each unit towards achieving excellence in its area of responsibility.

corporate innovation centers - qmarkets iconHow Qmarkets Can Help

Managing the output of an innovation community comprised of several teams and methodologies with a view to ensuring maximum cumulative output is no small undertaking. An undertaking of this sort can be made easier with an idea and innovation management system, such as Qmarkets’ Q-max platform. Using one of Qmarkets’ idea and innovation management platforms can streamline management of the various moving parts of any business’s innovation machinery, thus ensuring that the perfect symbiosis is achieved among all of the different elements of your organization in order to guarantee maximum efficiency and output.

Contact us today to discover how Qmarkets can take your innovation management strategy to a whole new level.

1. Aviv Katz. “Seven Stages to a Design Based Innovation Culture.” Touchpoint 7.2 (2017): 20-25. Web.
2. Brian Solis, Jerome Buvat, Subrahmanyam KVJ, Rishi Raj Singh, and Digital Transformation Research Institute. The Innovation Game: Why and How Businesses are Investing in Innovation Centers. Paris: Capgemini Consulting Contacts, 2015. PDF.

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