Defining a culture of innovation in 4 words...

This morning an acquaintance of mine that is a VP at one of the more distinguished UX consultancies in the field posted a provocative challenge: describe what "culture of innovation means in your own words."

Innovation is both a buzzword and a priority in business today. In a time when rampant lip service and box checking often substitute for meaningful action, it's important to understand the distinction between long-term cultural change and short-term tactics. To do the former, an organization must address four broad priorities: strategy, values, structure, and behavior. Let's take a quick look at each.


One of the most-quoted maxims in business is "culture eats strategy for lunch," and this Catch 22 is a real challenge, particularly for established companies looking to evolve. It's not enough to simply define "create a culture of innovation" as a strategy pillar. How then can this first key element best support the goal?

Noted business thinker Roger Martin describes strategy as a set of choices, with the key decisions of where to play and how to win the central guideposts. A company that does a poor job in defining its strategy choices, or that makes them overly vague or too broadly universal needs more focus if it is to create a sustainable culture of innovation. Apple has built the world's most valuable company not by trying to put an Apple device into the hands of everyone, but rather by serving a more specific segment. That Apple owns approximately 80% of the market value from 20% of the volume in smartphone sales is but one notable consequence of their strategic choices.

If your company is struggling to create an innovation culture, the first step should be a thoughtful examination of strategy, with an emphasis on clarity.


If it's true that what a company values is what it rewards, then this is another key area to address. A company can't credibly state that innovation is a priority if it remains committed to outdated ideas.

While every company is unique, there are recurring themes that describe the values of innovative companies. A few of these are transparency, ethics, inclusion, and empowerment of individuals. If these values take a back seat to tired standards like "quality," or "stability," there may be a problem—regardless of whether you're in Houston or beyond.

Most importantly, an organization must kick the tendency to value predictability as a core tenet of its operations. It must embrace the creation of valid outcomes that offer transformative results, vs. predictable ones that offer incremental gains.


Old-school hierarchies don't tend to foster innovative results. While the obsession with Zappo's organizational model seems to have subsided, a willingness to depart from traditional org charts signals that there is a real commitment to innovate. It's useful to observe if a company applies the guidance for its external efforts to its internal operations—I describe this as a condition in which the same rules apply to everyone.

Leadership must embrace innovation as a priority. Ideally this comes from the CEO, although today there are commonly more executives charged specifically with driving innovation in the organization. This guidance should be encouraged in all aspects and divisions of the company, not just those tasked with creating external revenues.

Equally important is for the company to give its employees the freedom to experiment, work independently, and put forward new ideas and initiatives with the minimum number of approvals. 3M and Google are widely recognized for fostering this kind of grass-roots level creativity, and numerous new business lines for each came from individual or small-team initiatives.


The above three factors aren't truly effective unless or until we see them reflected in actual behavior. This applies to the entity and the individuals within it.

For the entity, evidence will come in the form of proactive measures. There will be a willingness to make big bets on focused choices driven by strategy and informed by core values. New initiatives will explore new markets and tackle new challenges while competitors focus on existing ones. This is well illustrated by Amazon, which built its highly successful Amazon Web Services division while most observers were busy studying its e-commerce models.

The tendency towards higher risk taking is also accompanied by a higher tolerance for failure and ability to pivot by applying the lessons of initial failures. This eliminates the culture of fear present at less-innovative companies. Microsoft has built the Surface device into a successful platform, when many companies might have abandoned the effort after its initial, tepid sales.

Individual behaviors also evidence the company commitment to innovation. Individuals and small teams enjoy more autonomy and display more agile performance (whether by deliberate capital A agile or otherwise). They work in environments that accept failure as a part of the journey, and often reward the initiative regardless. Critically, a culture of innovation prioritizes outcomes over process—and indeed rarely establishes singular, prescriptive processes in the first place.

The general priority for innovation in business today is the result of tighter competition, reduced barriers to entering markets, and the shorter half-lives of technological advantages. Addressing the four priorities of your company's strategy, values, structure and behaviors to align for innovation aren't a magical formula, but they are a great way to guide the effort. As a bonus, the company will not only maximize its internal talent, it will also become a magnet for talent seeking the unique opportunities that come from a culture of innovation.

A Judge’s Notebook: 2018 SXSW™ Interactive Innovation Awards

[  It was my privilege to be a part of the judging panel for a third consecutive year .]

[ It was my privilege to be a part of the judging panel for a third consecutive year.]

The SXSW Conference is an epicenter of overlapping technology trends, industry interests, dedicated entrepreneurs, and far-reaching visions. There’s simply too much content, presented in too little time, to take it all in. This fact makes the Interactive Innovation Awards particularly notable as a concentrated snapshot of the state of technology. (NOTE: opinions reflected are personal and denote no official status or endorsement from SXSW).

The Big Picture

If there is one overriding takeaway that marks the 2018 Interactive Innovation Awards as a crossroads it’s this: the vast majority of the finalists (and perhaps a number of others that just missed) are at a much more mature, developed state than in recent years. Many of the finalists in 2016 and 2017 were at earlier stages; prototypes in beta mode, or developed tech in search of viable use cases were both common. In 2018, the entrants were deeper into the development cycle. There were completed projects, pilot programs running with corporate partners, products on the market, and more. At the same time—while there were exceptions—many of the finalists and winners still achieved great success with relatively small teams.

The breakout trend for SXSW 2018 is that humanity is globally connected. The spirit of collaboration was evident throughout the finalist showcase.

Judging in Brief

Only the conference organizers know the exact numbers associated with the judging process. Finalists emerge after a round of preliminary judging in which individual entrants are evaluated across four criteria: Creativity / Innovation, Form / Design, Function / Utility, and Overall Experience. Each judge also states if the entrant is a good fit for the conference. 

The judges then make their final selections on the day of the finalist showcase at the conference by simple ballot. There are thirteen categories in all, plus a best in show. Here are some of the author’s firsthand insights from the experience.

Winning Propositions

While the diversity and breadth of finalists makes overriding pronouncements difficult, there were visible threads common to several winning approaches. The presence of both bigger and deeper thinking united a number of winners. These were a few cases where the entrants looked beyond a singular case to create breakthrough projects.

One of the most impressive projects from any category was the winner for Smart Cities: The Jacques-Cartier Bridge Interactive Illumination Concept ( A team of seven businesses and governmental agencies captured the pulse of the city of Montreal through a massive LED light installation on this iconic bridge in the center of the city. Built for a 10-year lifespan, the bridge expresses the mood and energy of the city through lightshows informed by both social media and 1,700 individual news and data sources. This is data visualization writ large, with an innovative human fingerprint.

The Hands-Free Music Project by Microsoft enables what was once unthinkable: to allow paralyzed individuals to spontaneously make and play music.

Wearable Tech is another category that reached new limits in 2018. While some entrants in past years resembled more of a sci-fi costume than a practical, wearable garment, this year’s winner
Jacquard™ by Google ( ) elevated the category. The innovation involves conductive threads literally woven into the fabric of garments. The test case: a denim jacket marketed by Levis™, was first and foremost a garment; the tech was unobtrusive. The garment links to the wearer’s smartphone, and uses simple touch gestures on the jacket to interact with the app. Touches and directional swipes answer or decline phone calls, advance music selections, adjust volume, and more. The use of a washable, woven-in conductive circuit enables a new level of interaction for any number of garment types, from high fashion to industrial safety.

The combined VR & AR category also yielded a surprising innovation. Developed through the production of a 3D animated VR feature film Arden’s Wake, the winner: Maestro: Empowering VR Storytelling Through Social Collaboration by Penrose Studios ( ), brought a new vision to producing such projects. 3D animated features frequently involve collaboration between teams across not just countries but continents. The Maestro software allows hands-on, VR collaboration from remote locations within the actual VR worlds of the production. The makers facilitated a demo during the Award showcase in which anyone could get a firsthand tour of the software with the feature film’s director and lead animator right on the production’s VR “set.” With VR projected to grow dramatically in the coming years, this represents a breakthrough development for makers in the field.

One additional entry worthy of note is the Hands-Free Music Project by Microsoft ( ). This project illustrates both an exceptional level of empathy (as a music-making technology for those immobilized by illness or accident) and a complex, interdisciplinary solution. Using eye-tracking technology, real-time inputs and composition tools, and linked instruments (including a live, robotic drum kit), the project enables what was once unthinkable: to allow paralyzed individuals to spontaneously make and play music. Microsoft has made a strong commitment to inclusive design; the Hands-Free Music Project is an outcome worthy of its recognition as the winner for Music Innovation.

Toughest Category: Visual Media Experience

Perhaps no category exemplifies both the growth and quality of the awards competition better than Visual Media Experience. Not only were the finalists of consistently high quality and diverse approaches, but also even a number of non-finalists arguably achieved finalist-worthy outcomes.

It’s particularly noteworthy that the category winner diverged sharply from a number of its competing entrants. While a number of entrants achieved high standards through immersive, architectural installations and experiences, the LEGO™ House Fish Designer by LEGO House/Trigger Global ( ) was decidedly more intimate and personal. The hands-on creation and simple input process enables any individual to build a LEGO fish, and add it to a virtual, HD fish tank. A simple scanner and animation program convert the object into a virtual, swimming fish.

The LEGO™ House Fish Designer was decidedly more intimate and personal than the immersive, architectural installations and experiences of competing finalists.

One additional means of defining the competitive nature of the category is by exploring entries which fell short of finalist considerations. Two separate immersive experiences showcase creativity, craftsmanship, and engagement for visitors. “Prismverse” ( is an audiovisual art installation created for the skincare brand Dr.Jart+ for its campaign called “Light Now. Right Now.” AVA V2 (  ) was featured at TEDxCERN 2016. Inspired by the iconic dome structures of Buckminster Fuller and particle physics, AVA V2 reflects experiments in particle physics and cosmic rays. Each uniquely explore the possibilities of sensory experiences.

Although in a separate category—SciFi No Longer—the finalist Google™ Earth VR ( ) also illustrates the high standard of the awards competition. Its presentation of iconic world heritage locations such as the Matterhorn and Machu Picchu in high definition VR is stunning, and perhaps as recently as a year ago would have deservedly won its category. Yet at this point in time, the project may appear as a more incremental add-on to Google Earth. 

Insights and Honorable Mentions

A big winner in the competition is the Swarm AI by Unanimous AI ( Stating that it “provides the interfaces and algorithms to enable “human swarms” to converge online, combining the knowledge, wisdom, insights, and intuitions of diverse groups into a single emergent intelligence....”, the platform has produced some impressive results. Its winning results in both the AI category and as Best-in-Show testify to its quality.

if inputs depend on a curated community of subject enthusiasts, does this fall outside the perception of an independent AI?

However, there are two factors that may indicate its sophistication is as yet undetermined. Its online communities have indeed made some spectacular predictions as a group—each beyond the reach of any individual that participated. The correct prediction of the 2017 Kentucky Derby Superfecta (the top four horses in finishing order) is one—a prediction that yielded an $11,000 payoff on a $20 bet. However, this raises an important question: if the inputs depend on a curated community of subject enthusiasts (although notably, below the mastery of recognized experts), does this fall outside the perception of an AI reaching independent conclusion? It may also be premature to project its initial accomplishments (many relating to sports and entertainment prognostication) to broader impact without broader testing. Despite these caveats, the entry remains an impressive piece  of research.

There are three other entrants that deserve discussion (in the author’s opinion). Two were category finalists, the last missed the cut:

TinyMOS: Astrophotography made small, smart and social by Y&R Singapore ( An impressive combination of hardware and software that makes astronomy accessible, it was all the more impressive for being a finalist in two categories: Responsive Design and Student Innovation.

The Cognitive Story by Darwin Ecosystem, Dallas, TX ( ). This machine learning system helps limited individuals (who can’t talk, type, or use eye-tracking technology) to communicate by identifying brainwave patterns that detect intentions and express them to people or systems. It also dramatically simplifies the necessary tech to make it practical outside of research laboratories.

Miner’s Walk by Josephine Lie ( ). Miner’s Walk is an interactive documentary exploring the lives of Indonesian miners who trek the steep slopes of the Ijen Crater in search of sulphur. It uses short and long form video, an interactive timeline, and multiple points of view reminiscent of a National Geographic style of storytelling.

A Celebration of Creativity

Regardless of the designations of winner’s and losers, the 2018 SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards celebrate the creativity of diverse teams, concepts and approaches. The showcase gives all attendees who experience it  an invaluable glimpse at emerging technology. 

Reader’s can judge for themselves what merits each finalist exhibited here:

The award winners are listed here:


: : Contact Tom Berno directly at for more information

Just another B.S. argument against Design Thinking.

Just a big heaping pile of B.S.?

Just a big heaping pile of B.S.?

Pentagram partner Natasha Jen challenges all design thinking practitioners who believe in its value, to “prove it.”

In a much publicized talk from the 99u Conference last year, Pentagram partner Natasha Jen delivered a presentation titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit.” It was a tour de force. It had everything. It was passionate. It was provacative. It was even a little bit profane.

There’s only one problem: her arguments against design thinking—frankly—don’t address design thinking. 

Instead, she describes her perception of design thinking, and in doing so, levels criticism based not on the thorough practice of design thinking, but of traditional graphic design. By the end of her talk, she challenges all design thinking practitioners who believe in its value, to “prove it.”

With all due respect to Ms. Jen and Pentagram: challenge accepted.

An airing of grievances

Jen launches her assessment of design thinking with the complaint that it is “such a buzzword” and involves a “complete lack of critique.” Using a Google™ image search page filled with diagrams—many admittedly inelegant—that illustrate the design thinking process, she goes on to describe a “very linear methodology” that was devoid of critique. She follows this observation that design thinking uses a single tool: the 3M Post-It Note.™

Jen then describes her definition of design thinking:

“Design thinking packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem-solving, claiming it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”

This definition is loaded with pejoratives: “packaging,” “prescriptive,” and worst of all, “non-
designer.” Indeed the concept of who is or isn’t a “real designer” is an underlying theme of Jen’s presentation.

Jen's Exhibit A in her indictment of design thinking: poor diagrams.

Jen's Exhibit A in her indictment of design thinking: poor diagrams.

One consistent theme amongst detractors of design thinking is that because the term has been reduced to a buzzword, and practiced incorrectly by an opportunistic consultant class (another pejorative), that its value is meaningless. This makes about as much sense as saying that because the Windows Phone™ was a failure, we might as well scrap the iPhone™ too.

Let’s get specific

Design thinking is frequently described in varying ways, from being an innovation focused tool to an empathetic application of human-centered design. Neither of these is complete as a definition, although each gives some insight into the practice. Here are some more useful defining frameworks:

In Change by Design, IDEO co-founder Tim Brown presents design thinking as a means of unleashing design’s “disruptive, game-changing potential.” It utilizes three phases—ideation, iteration, implementation—to explore opportunities that combine desirability, feasibility, and viability. 

In The Design of Business, Roger L. Martin presents design thinking as neither a logical nor intuitive thinking process, but rather one that integrates both to create new and valid models for business. He advocates the abductive thinking of philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to make “logical leaps of mind” when considering how to innovate.

Lastly, Italian design expert Roberto Verganti describes three key aspects of design thinking. These are: to visualize what doesn’t yet exist, to implement as will as visualize, and to drive change towards “more meaningful outcomes.”

These definitions are both specific and adaptive. They are also not expressed in terms relating to traditional design practice, nor the creation of design artifacts.

Additionally, a useful definition of design (also historically a moving target) helps to better understand the distinctions between it and design thinking. One way of describing design is that “it’s goal is to envision and implement an improved future state (Liedtke and Ogilvie, 2010).” A broader definition may be that design is the deliberate arrangement of forms, ideas and content to achieve specific intents or purposes. These accommodate the full breadth of design as well as its individual disciplines, such as graphic or industrial design.

Design and design thinking are related, but they aren’t the same discipline. While it’s true that advocates of design thinking do believe it is broadly accessible, few serious ones would state that anyone can become an expert at it. As Tim Brown states: “taking a few lessons from your local tennis pro won’t make you Serena Williams.” 

The intended outcomes of design thinking aren’t defined by the creation of aesthetically-pleasing artifacts; they relate to creating better products, better services, and better experiences.

Contrasting the above definitions to the description of design thinking Jen presented in her talk illustrates a major deficiency in her argument. If the definition of design thinking is presented in such a way as to position it as inferior, the criticism merits little more consideration than the consultants that wish to capitalize on the buzzword without providing substance.

It’s not about being pretty

Definitions are one thing, but outcomes are another. Jen decries design thinking, with its Post-it Notes and diagrams, as being devoid of visual evidence. In her view, the only means of validating the quality of work and improving it is through critique. There are two fundamental flaws to this reasoning. 

One is that the intended outcomes of design thinking aren’t defined by the creation of aesthetically-pleasing artifacts; they relate to creating valid outcomes: better products, better services, better experiences–each with empathetic, human value. 

The second is that this point of view substitutes design’s own practices and culture of critique as preferential models to those of design thinking. Again the two are related, yet distinct.

Jen cites examples of influential designers to claim that design thinking’s relevance is vastly exaggerated. She describes the history of Charles and Ray Eames as designers that “practiced by doing.” She references Steve Jobs’ messy office and reliance on intuition as being key to developing products that fulfilled people’s desires and needs.

Detractors of design thinking claim that because the term has been reduced to a buzzword, its value is meaningless. This makes as much sense as saying that because the Windows Phone™ was a failure, we might as well scrap the iPhone™ too.

Practicing by doing, use of intuition, and focus on human needs and desires aren’t the antithesis of design thinking. They are integral to design thinking.

Enter the evidence

Jen also calls out other “alleged” uses of design thinking in practice through several case studies. As she expresses a skeptical, even dismissive attitude towards the work, she unfortunately departs from the type of rigorous critique she claims is absent from design thinking. Indeed she seems quite confident in her assessments, without offering context or commentary on ways of improving the projects. Her opinions are settled. Here are the actual cases, with actual results.

The first is the well-known GE Healthcare Adventure Series™ MRI suites that featured themes and graphics to make them friendlier to sick and frightened children. “Did we really need design thinking to figure this out?" Jen asks.

Veteran practitioners of design know from experience that valid solutions have a way of looking correct, even obvious. Paul Rand’s IBM rebus and Milton Glaser’s I (Heart) New York are great examples of this. Did design legends really need to design these? Aren’t they completely obvious? 

The truth is no, they are not. Or at least were not when they were designed. The IBM rebus symbolizes much more than a clever, visual interpretation of the company name. It represents vision, focus and clarity through the eye, and teamwork and industriousness through the bee. We’ve seen ad nauseum interpretations of I {Heart} whatever over the years, forgetting Glaser’s original icon stood alone when it was unveiled.

Veteran practitioners of design know from experience that valid solutions have a way of looking correct, even obvious.

So it is with GE Healthcare. No one knew in advance if it would produce results. Design thinking offered a visualization of a friendlier, less intimidating environment. If all that had occurred was a slightly improved visual design experience, one could rightfully question the effort. But aesthetics weren’t the goal. The goal concerned reducing a shocking need to anesthetize 80% of children in need of an MRI. The adventure series has reduced that figure to 30%.

So, for the parents of sick kids that need MRIs, and the professionals that have to treat them, is that B.S.?

She then takes Olay to task for shifting its focus to younger women as sales slumped across older demographics. She suggests this was an obvious strategy. This ignores the fact that Olay suffered from brand perceptions linking it to older demographics, even as it was questionable as to whether younger women would invest in regular skin care regimens. To test this market, Olay not only redefined its brand, it re-engineered its product line. 

In the process, Olay grew more than tripled its sales from $800 million to $2.5 billion. Even a “real” designer would likely agree that these are not B.S. returns on investment.

Lastly, she calls up a dashboard screen from IBM’s Bluemix™ line. Here, she reviews it (calling it a prototype) and suggests it is undistinguished, yet the result of rigorous design thinking.

Recent research conducted independently by Forrester™ indicates IBM’s return on investment for its design thinking commitment is 301%. That kind of B.S. will likely be in demand by the truckload as more companies seek sustainable business models.

One more line of evidence is also worth considering. Pentagram as a company, besides creating superior design work in general, can rightfully be called an innovator, even a disruptor. The formation of the partnership in 1972 addressed a critical issue. The more creative organizations grew, the farther removed the partners were from the creation of the work. They became managers and client service executives. Pentagram solved that problem by retaining the model of a small, elite creative team with a single partner in charge. The top level was an equal relationship of 5 partners. When scale is needed, or cross-disciplinary expertise, two or more partners collaborate. Today there are 19 partners (Natasha Jen is one), but the structure holds.

Yet, for all the company’s success, there is still only one Pentagram. While many designers aspire to equal or exceed the company’s level of design excellence, that has not led to the Pentagram structure becoming a common studio management model. Design excellence on its own was not sufficient to drive this kind of change across the industry. 

The change movement related to design thinking, on the other hand, has shifted the landscape of design in dramatic fashion. Since 2013, an astonishing 75 design agencies and studios have been acquired by non-design companies (J. Maeda, 2018 Design in Tech report). This is additional evidence of another way design thinking has elevated the value of design. Some of the most significant consulting companies are among the acquiring parties: Accenture, Deloitte, and McKinsey among those. 

IBM’s return on investment for its design thinking commitment is 301%.
— Forrester Consulting

Concurrent with the increased value of design is perhaps an uncomfortable realization for traditional designers: when design becomes this important, it’s too important to be left strictly to outsiders. As Fjord CEO Olof Schybergson stated in 2013: “design is so central...that simply hiring it in when you need it, if you need it, is not really a good long-term game anymore.” This changing landscape presents challenges to the traditional role of designers as outsiders, and may explain some of the skepticism expressed by Jen, and other designers, as they seek to maintain their independence.

Closing argument

Individuals can—and should—critique design thinking. It should be done, however, with an eye towards improving the practice, weeding out bad actors, and building a more inclusive and collaborative culture. To dismiss it wholesale as not being “real design” ignores substantial recent gains and success stories. Within the last decade, design evolved rapidly from being an external embellishment to a strategic priority within business and technology as a whole.

It is not a coincidence that this closely corresponds to the rapid expansion of design thinking’s influence in that same period (roughly accelerating with the publication of Change by Design in 2009). The fact that design literally has a “seat at the table” in the C-suite, that it is a priority for companies and organizations, that it has never been more highly valued, and that its practitioners as a whole have never been better compensated, is indisputable. Design thinking is a primary influencer to that state of affairs.

And without more compelling evidence in rebuttal, any argument that design thinking has not
contributed to a healthier design ecosystem is frankly, B.S.

: : Contact Tom Berno directly at for more information




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