Creating a culture of innovation

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It’s a team effort and it must be supported from the top in order to enable bottom-up experimentation

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Innovation in the boating industry has been around for more than a century. Very few industries have as distinctive a history as ours, yet many things about the boating business are unchanged. Our processes and techniques have remained relatively the same for many years. Although we have evolved our practices, innovation results in revolution.

The term innovation has been thrown around carelessly in recent years, with little insight into what it takes to be innovative. Many fail to really understand what innovation is and what it is not. Innovation is extremely hard to define, which makes it even harder to understand. It is very easy for us to sit back and say, “We need to innovate! Innovation wins!” Both of these things are true, but they will get us nowhere. Unless we really understand what is necessary to innovate, we will continue to evolve our practices and go about business as usual.

How do you innovate?

Innovation requires a culture. It is not just a process. It is not just a product. It is a culture — a culture that requires vision, leadership and commitment. It must be supported from the top down in order to enable bottom-up experimentation. Experimentation from the bottom ensures that new ideas will be brought to the table, but without support from the top they will go nowhere. An innovative culture thrives on collaboration. The ability to tear down the walls, both figuratively and physically, enables everyone to gain insight and knowledge from each other. Ideas that are developed through a collaborative environment are able to incubate and develop through multidisciplinary inputs. This is where ideas are created. Building a culture that understands and supports innovation through a multidisciplinary approach will be empowered to create solutions. The culture is just the foundation; it does not mean that your team will magically be innovative. There is still the process of creation.

The design process

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Design, as a profession, is relatively new and even more so within the boating industry. Historically, and even today, the design of boats has been left to a variety of people within an organization or to outside consultants. What design brings to the table is a culture and process that fosters ideas that can lead to innovative solutions. At its heart is the design process. The design process is a framework that enables empathy and creates solutions through an iterative process. The beauty of this framework is that it is not just restricted to design. It can be implemented in processes, services and even business as a way to solve problems. The design process is a multiphased approach that consists of research, ideation, refinement and the final concept.

Design research

Design research creates empathy. It is an ethnographic research method that enables everyone involved in the process to feel and understand cultures. A deeper understanding of people and culture is what allows designers to create solutions that can resonate with people far beyond the physical.

Ideation

Opportunities begin to take shape in the ideation phase. The key to this phase is an iterative process — concept, prototype, evaluate and start over again. Each time learning more, refining further. Failure is a necessary part of this process. Without knowing what won’t work, we will never be able to determine what will work.

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Refinement

As we continue to generate more ideas, we begin to refine further. The same iterative process is used but now in a much more refined state. Each new insight drives the next idea. As more and more constraints are added to the problem, new solutions begin to reveal themselves.

Final concept

The last phase of the design process creates a narrative that is easy to understand for all stakeholders. This narrative is a compilation of all of the work, telling the story through the eyes of the consumer. Allowing stakeholders to witness the process through this lens creates the buy-in necessary to enable innovative solutions to make it to market.

Throughout the entire process there are a variety of forces that act on a designer. Whether it is engineering, sales, marketing, the consumer, the market, trends or manufacturing, a good designer must be able to filter. The ability to weigh and filter all of these forces will determine whether a solution will even see the light of day. What makes designers unique for this problem is their ability to empathize with the user and their own intuition. That empathy is created through our immersion in the culture and intuition informed by internal and external forces. This is why design cannot be looked at as a formula. Design is emotional. You cannot quantify it or bound it. If innovation is your goal, don’t look at it as a formula — understand it and build a culture to let it thrive.

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Charlie Foss is a lead designer for the Brunswick Boat Group, guiding a team that works with Boston Whaler, Lund, Lowe, Crestliner and Harris Kayot. Striving to create designs that create memorable experiences, he has a strong passion for the relationship between design, business and design culture. Foss has worked for Mercury Marine and Design Concepts, a design consultancy.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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