In the race to beat back the beast of stagnation, many large companies are training their employees in design thinking.

But real innovation requires far more than just mechanics – and too often, companies think that ‘ticking the training box’ is enough to get innovation happening. That’s when Robert Berris steps in.

As VP, Design & Innovation at 352, Robert Berris leads the innovation and strategy practice, focusing on co-creating empathy-driven solutions with clients.

We chatted with him in preparation for his session at #Innov8rs Atlanta to find out the benefits and risks of design thinking for large companies, why effective ideation must include questions and constraints, and how agnosticism can pave the way to needle-moving discoveries.

You help clients through some of their most pressing challenges, like new business models and organizational change. How do you get people on board, so to speak?

Our first question is always: how do you define risk? Risk is generally defined as something, either thoughts or actions, that may threaten the well-being of an organization. Actions are the what usually trips them up. Each company also has their own value system, so to speak, around risk; how they believe risk is viewed in the organization and what the boundaries are, what is considered too far. Obviously, the actual impact of risk is different for everybody.

The challenge I give to people is: don’t you think not acting is riskier than acting? Often, we see people who’ve been in a research phase for awhile, and once we coach them or help them begin lightweight experiments, they tend to do a lot of those. It feels to them like they’re doing something… they are and they aren’t.

When you redefine risk as the opportunity cost of inaction, it suddenly becomes very clear that you’re actually avoiding the inevitability of making a decision.

Is that where you see design thinking having the biggest impact, helping people understand how to go from ‘busy work’ to meaningful action?

I think that’s what people generally struggle with, and when you’re part of a big company that’s something so cultural and ingrained either, by your manager or by process or by your onboarding experience.

But just introducing people to design thinking isn’t a quick fix. It’s hard to break that mold just by taking a class or sending a few people to a two-day immersive. Doing it once or twice doesn’t make much of a change in your organization. It’s like going to the dentist. You go, and you take great care of your teeth for a few weeks because you’re paying attention to it, and then you’re back to your usual routine. For lasting change it needs to be a change in mindset and lifestyle – so how you think, and what you actually do, the actions you take on a regular basis. Imagine if your organizational structure, your process used to complete work, and your role was aligned with a design thinking framework?

If everyone at an organization adhered to or mastered design thinking principles, would all of their challenges go away? What would happen?

I think some really great things would happen, and some really bad things would happen. A great thing is you would expose people to a new way of thinking, a way that flips thinking on its head. And obviously we’d now be focused on problems over solutions, and that’s a great place to be.

The problem is you’re really running two businesses. One business is more methodical, like a startup. It has a lot of design thinking, test-and-learn type of philosophies, where you want to learn quickly or, as some would say, fail fast. The other business is the core, day-to-day. You need to keep that moving, and you rely on tried and true process methodologies and business strategy to do that. You still need people who are able to work with those processes and methods.

Too often, companies don’t bring the startup mindset and philosophies back into the company.

When an innovation team is doing something new it’s very difficult to bring that back into the day-to-day and change that mode of operation; but, that’s exactly what they need to do. It’s an unenviable challenge.

So for running the day to day operations, you wouldn’t need something like design thinking?

No, it’s not that. You still need to have some level of training, but you need rigor around it. For example, you can’t be constantly changing process in the day-to-day simply because you probably won’t get anything done. It’s almost too disruptive.

If you made sure everyone understood and empathized with the design thinking process and with the people working in that process, you’d at least have people who are more open to change. That’s a better place to be than to have everyone every week, or every day, trying to experiment and test and learn.

That would impede, not help, business as usual. But, you need cycles by which another team brings that knowledge and learning back into the company and challenges the day-to-day teams. To say “Ok, here’s an insight, or here’s a new process – how might you use it to better your day-to-day?”

I would love to expose everybody in every company to design thinking – the danger is that all of a sudden everyone in the company says “I don’t want to do the day-to-day, I just want to innovate.” You can’t have that in every single role.

Any examples of clients you’ve worked with that you think have struck a good balance?

Cox Enterprises is made up of three key businesses: communications, media, and automotive. We’ve worked in each of those in some capacity, whether it was development or innovation or strategy.

I appreciate what Cox has been doing for two reasons. The first is that they have a great motto: they want to leave the world in a better place than which they found it. The second is they’ve tried a bunch of models, and I love that they keep breaking and trying and testing new ones. They’re a massive company so it’s really challenging to do, but they have very ambitious goals. Even if they haven’t been successful every time they’ve done it, I love that I’ve seen three or four iterations. It means they are learning and want to find a working model.

I also think innovation to them is very different than in other organizations. I would argue that innovation at Coca-Cola, for example, innovation could take so many forms – maybe it’s having an innovation team in marketing doing something cool with the can, or maybe it’s a new branded app for engagement With Cox, a lot of their work was around new businesses and new ventures, and trying to identify what gaps were in the market that their B2B customers are still having trouble with. I appreciate that there are different approaches, but I feel that Cox has put real money and time and energy and thought behind it. Some large companies who you’d assume would do that, who certainly have the resources and money, don’t devote nearly as much as you’d think to innovation.

They’ve made a conscious choice to be flexible, to embrace the uncertainty, and try to manage the balance between innovation and focusing on core business.

Is that the best approach, to embrace uncertainty and experiment with different models and tools?

I don’t know if it’s the best, but I think it’s fair. To me it comes back to: why do they want to do innovation in the first place? What is driving it? For some companies it’s PR and brand and marketing, for some it’s that they want to do business better or they want to find the next thing that will disrupt them. If your why aligns with your activities, awesome. If it doesn’t, then I would ask: why are you investing in innovation?

Recently, a telecommunications company reached out to us. We had done a couple of workshops with them. They asked us: how would you build a 5 million dollar startup to beat us? That was the ask. I love that! They asked themselves, if we had to build a telco startup from scratch, what sort of tool or strategy would we use with 5 million dollars to beat ourselves? That’s the type of divergent thinking that companies need to start embracing.

Many innovation folks have told me their companies get caught up in all these methods, and innovation becomes more about the mechanics than about the what and the why. A company manager once told me: we’ve tried to move away from processes so we trained everyone in design thinking, we ticked that box, and nothing really changed. Why is this so common?

The analogy I like to give people is that if I ask you to brainstorm something with me – let’s say I want you to write a book, and it can be about anything – that’s a pretty weighty task. I’ve just asked you to do this big, daunting thing. I’ve given you no direction, no filters, no process. But what if I said to you: I want it to be about a boy who lives in France and his mother is a breadmaker. All of a sudden I’ve put some constraints on your thinking in order to help you start to visualize: why the hell am I writing this book and how do I get there a little faster? So I’m a big proponent of constraints.

I believe constraints drive creativity.

The second thing is, there are a lot of people who think process is bad. You’ll hear people say ‘entrepreneurs and startups are real messy’ – not true – and ‘we don’t like process, we don’t do it’. One of my team members is expert at process creation, he has a great quote: “No, everybody has a process, you just may not have been intentional about creating it.” By being intentional about process,frameworks, and mental models, all of a sudden you’re giving structure to how you think and how you can operate. Better stated, process is only bad if you view it as a constant that prevents you from doing great work, it can be the total inverse of that.

This past January, I spent the entire month doing organizational design for one of our manufacturing clients. On the first day of the workshop, they said ‘oh, we say we’re entrepreneurial but entrepreneurs don’t have process, they’re really messy and that’s why we have so many challenges in our org’ I told them: no, you’re really messy. Entrepreneurs have a process, because you know what else they have? They have a finite amount of time, money, and resources. You don’t know what it’s like to have real constraints,; you have substantially more budget, staffing and additional resources than a startup, yet you’re still failing. Why is that?

By the time we were done, they realized they’d been failing because they had no rigor, no definition around the work they were doing, or why it was important. Without a way for them to qualitatively compare problems, workstreams, and initiatives they would continue to have major impediments for success.

Once you start to layer on mental models of process and thinking, conversations shift and change. It’s no longer emotional – it becomes quite rational, actually.

It sounds like companies would call you when they realize they aren’t really innovating so much as running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Often they have problems they have a hard time articulating. And the problems they can articulate are actually symptoms of a root problem. I think that’s what they’re used to, they’re used to building solutions or coming up with ideas that are symptoms of something else.

I was in a meeting like this just the other day. The client running the meeting had no questions – just solution after solution after solution. Another person in the room asked me “I heard there’s a trend where 30% of e-commerce sites are losing business. Why is that?” I answered “That’s a fantastic question, and I’m not even going to pretend to know the answer. Every company is different. I don’t know what problem they’re solving for or for what audience, but that’s our job. Our job is to delve deeper into those problems.” I think because I flip it on its head, it becomes less daunting. All of a sudden it takes the pressure off them having to find a solution, and it comes back to starting with finding the problem. There’s an openness to that approach, but it’s very different for them.

I guess as an executive you’re trained to be the one with the answers, right?

Well that’s what you think you’re supposed to do.

People think that asking questions shows weakness. It’s laughable. You have to ask questions.

When we do interviews for new hires, I have to remind my team that people are going to be hesitant to ask questions because there’s a feeling of inferiority, you’re in a room with a bunch of people who’ve been doing this a long time. You have to untrain yourself and the candidate may not be there yet. Questions are really healthy. I’m comfortable knowing what I don’t know. Because of that, I think I go in with some intellectual honesty as opposed saying ‘well, I did some research and I read some Wikipedia articles and I read some Fortune stuff, so let’s just go talk about IoT, I got it.” I don’t got shit! I have no idea. But I think that’s our advantage. We can come in agnostically and say hey look, we don’t know what we don’t know, and that’s ok.

Finally – what one word would you use to describe the innovation scene in Atlanta?

Fire. There’s a lot happening right now in the startup and corporate innovation community and it’s on fire. It’s super exciting to watch what’s happening here. I look forward to welcoming you to Atlanta, and to my masterclass on the second day of Innov8rs ATL!