Innovating While Getting Things Done

In Tom Watson’s response to Seth Godin yesterday, he wrote:

Change ain’t easy when the world keeps moving and you have the keep the lights on…

More nonprofits need to adapt, to experiment, to take risks, to embrace change. But they need to keep on providing services while they’re doing it.

This is a real dilemma. Interestingly, the New York Times had a story about exactly this issue last week.

In Welcoming the New, Improving the Old, Sara Beckman wrote:

For decades, companies from Cisco Systems to Staples to Bank of America have worked to embed the basic techniques of Six Sigma, the business approach that relies on measurement and analysis to make operations as efficient as possible.

More recently, in the last 5 to 10 years, they have been told they must master a new set of skills known as “design thinking.” Aiming to help companies innovate, design thinking starts with an intense focus on understanding real problems customers face in their day-to-day lives — often using techniques derived from ethnographers — and then entertains a range of possible solutions.

To many, the two skill sets don’t fit together well, and Chuck Jones, vice president for global consumer design at Whirlpool, explains why that may be so. Design thinkers, he says, are like quantum physicists, able to consider a world in which anything — like traveling at the speed of light — is theoretically possible. But a majority of people, including the Six Sigma advocates in most corporations, think more like Newtonian physicists — focused on measurement along three well-defined dimensions.

…The different world views, however, can be brought together.

At Whirlpool, Mr. Jones first proved the value of design with the introduction of the Duet washer and dryer. Duet’s novel, easy-to-use, energy-efficient design made Whirlpool a player in the front-loader market. After that success, he invited Whirlpool’s Six Sigma experts to help him improve design processes. They developed various new metrics — for how customers evaluate product quality, for example — that allowed designers and Six Sigma types to understand each other better.

Progressive Insurance has also turned design and Six Sigma techniques into reasonably comfortable bedfellows. In the early 1990s, it started emphasizing showing up at an accident scene and handling situations in real time, according to a 2004 article by Michael Hammer in The Harvard Business Review. That move reflected a designer’s way of thinking about customer needs, but the company was able to execute the idea through its ability to measure, analyze and improve its processes.

Both worlds — the quantum one where designers push boundaries to surprise and delight, and the Newtonian one where workers meet deadlines and margins — are meaningful. The most successful companies will learn to build bridges between them and leverage them both.

Commenting on the article, Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, writes:

I have to admit that for a long time I was highly skeptical of design thinking’s ability to operate in a Six Sigma environment and I was once quoted in the Economist as saying that it was toxic to innovation.

I don’t think that anymore. Having spent more time studying companies like Toyota I have realized that high quality (the goal of Six Sigma) is a great platform for new ideas (the goal of design thinking). Similarly, as Chuck Jones implies, Six Sigma can help new ideas get better faster…

Perhaps we should think of design thinking and Six Sigma being part of a cycle, each feeding the other to create new and improved products, services and experiences. Of course the biggest challenge will be to build business cultures that are agile enough to incorporate both.

I think Tim is right that the big challenge is to “build business cultures that are agile enough to incorporate both.” This is an area where nonprofits and for-profits share the exact same challenge. There’s no simple answer to this problem. It is simply something every outstanding organization has to figure out. As it relates to the conversation yesterday about social media, great organizations need to adopt social media even while older forms of communication are paying the bills. And while older approaches are being used, they still need to be improved.

No one ever said this stuff was easy.


  1. Beth Kanter says:

    Sean: This is the hard part of social media adoption for a lot of nonprofits – the fact that you have adapt and learn and improve your strategy. Many organizations don’t have try it and fix it in their DNA – because it means pushing the pause button and doing a little reflection – saying this isn’t working, how to improve it. Along with the risk taking.

    SO, how you create a safe hands-on place for learning that can lead to innovation?

  2. Beth Kanter says:

    And the path to improvement and agility – is creating a culture that isn’t afraid to fail – this is both relevant to nonprofits and for-profits – I had a delightful conversation last week about this with folks from larger corporations and their social media adoption. Lots of great ideas

  3. Thanks for the links Beth. Thanks for the amen, Dennis!

  4. Jenn Kantz says:

    “I think Tim is right that the big challenge is to “build business cultures that are agile enough to incorporate both.” This is an area where nonprofits and for-profits share the exact same challenge. There’s no simple answer to this problem. It is simply something every outstanding organization has to figure out.”

    I agree: there is a sweet spot between exploring new opportunities and shoring up existing programs. Nonprofits may have an advantage in that there are two main avenues available to the organization to help them continually adapt.

    First, listen to your “boots on the ground” – your donors, your clients, and your volunteers. Track their changes in needs and as you solicit their feedback brainstorm new opportunities to solve their problems.

    Second, listen to your social environment. If you’re in the child welfare arena or the crusade to end hunger in America listen to what’s going on in legislature. Tune into networks and policy advocates to learn about upcoming changes and how you’re organization can adapt to those changes, ultimately making them work for you.