02-04-2016 - Designers frequently collaborate with large companies, where processes are often complex, and very political. How to get your ideas implemented?


Designers frequently collaborate with large companies. However, in these companies, the process of innovation is often long, complex, and very political. Even the very best ideas must overcome countless hurdles before they get a green light. Revising an idea until everyone signs off to it can be a very frustrating process for the designer. But even worse, in the process of implementing an idea, organizational priorities can suddenly change or contact persons leave the organization. This can mean that good ideas get stranded in an organizational hierarchy and are not being implemented.

Research project

How can designers make sure that their ideas actually get implemented – especially in large, multinational corporations and organizations? This is a question I investigated during a research project co-funded by BNO (for more information, see rsm.nl/bots). I examined several cases where designers engaged in innovative "cross-over" projects with other large firms and organizations. I compared ideas which were adopted with those which, at some point in the innovation process, stranded and were thus not implemented by the organization.

After interviewing designers and representatives of the respective organizations, I discovered four strategies that helped designers to increase the chances that their ideas get implemented – two network-related strategies and two idea-related strategies. All four strategies have in common that they lead to more flexibility in the idea implementation process. In turn, flexibility is critical for idea implementation success.

Creating flexibility with your network

The first strategy is to create a large and dense network with representatives in the organization. Involve early on in the process a diverse range of stakeholders who know each other. A designer that I interviewed illustrated the advantage of this: "You always have topics emerging in such an innovation process that your direct contact cannot face alone. The more people you have on board, the higher the chance that through different perspectives, they can get to a solution." On the one hand, creating a large and dense network helps designers to prevent silo thinking and thus to develop a more holistically developed idea. On the other hand, it also decreases the dependency on one executive in the organization. For instance, when this manager leaves the organization, other people can take over project leadership as they already are familiar with the idea and the innovation process.



The second strategy is to encourage shared responsibility. This means that all stakeholders involved need to feel equal ownership of and responsibility over the idea. As a designer you want to prevent questions such as: Who are you that you keep yourself busy with this? One designer told me that when such type of questions is asked, "[y]ou have to pull so much harder in order to sell yourself... to create support within the organization." One way to create ownership is to highlight the different benefits that each stakeholder has for participating in the innovation process. The advantage of creating ownership is that one stresses mutual responsibility to implement the idea – so to say: "we are all in this together!" Moreover, creating shared responsibility decrease again dependency. If for some reason things change in the other organization, there will be more managers who push for implementation as they feel ownership and responsibility over the idea. 

Creating flexibility with your idea

A third strategy I observed relates to how flexible designers handled the business case around an idea they proposed. Ideas need to meet core objectives of an organization but designers were able to increase implementation success when they were flexible about how their idea met that core objective. While the core of an idea hardly ever changed, some designer flexibly adapted the business case around an idea. You could also say they wrapped the idea differently depending on the organizational representative they talked to. This helped them convince different stakeholders in a firm about the value of an idea as a flexible business case made the idea more interesting to those various stakeholders. It also led to less dependency again as the idea could be adapted to the interests of several executives and departments in a firm. So even when priorities in one department changed, the idea could more quickly be adapted to the needs of another department and was eventually still implemented.



The fourth and final strategy – early prototyping – is maybe a no-brainer for designers. The principle here is of course to present something tangible or visual as soon as possible. For instance, one person told me that "you have to present tangible examples. Prototyping... show that you have [everything] in order; that you know the outcomes that you want to achieve. [This shows that] the idea is feasible." Early prototyping helps to convince stakeholders about the value of an idea – especially those that are not involved in the process from the very beginning or those to which the designer hardly has any direct contact. Presenting something tangible also fosters the development of different business cases as people can more easily make these connections when they have something concrete in front of them. In turn, a flexible business case makes the idea interesting to various stakeholders and therefore leads to more flexibility in the implementation process. 

Consequences of idea implementation flexibility

Creating flexibility in idea implementation leads to more support and buy-in for an idea. Ideas are more holistically developed – the diverse views of different experts and stakeholders are better integrated. Ideas developed in that way are "stronger." This means that executives and other stakeholders have more certainty about the success of an idea. Together, this helps to increase the chances that an idea will be successfully implemented and that it does not strand in the organization.

About the author

Dirk Deichmann is an assistant professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. After completing his Ph.D. at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University he worked at VU University Amsterdam. Dirk is currently involved in the "Battle of the Souls" project in which he studies innovation projects between firms from the creative industry and firms from other sectors. His general research focuses on the determinants and outcomes of creative and innovative behavior, with particular emphasis on the role of social networks. For more information, see rsm.nl/deichmann.

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