Why innovation hubs have become the new R&D…and why that’s bad news for designers and businesses.

As recently as 10 years ago if you asked people in large organizations, “who’s accountable for innovation here?” many of them would point to the company’s Research & Development organization. It was the rare bird outside of R&D that saw innovation, design or creativity as part of their job responsibilities.

Once innovation fever swept through the landscape, companies awoke to the fact that they lacked the design capabilities and competencies to play in that world. Innovation consultancies and design houses spread like wildfire and were more than happy to fill that void.

Then, through education and some painful lessons learned, many companies were successful in both getting their employees to embrace (or at least succumb to) that fact that 1) innovation was everyone’s job and 2) good, novel ideas could come from any part of the organization. Some were even successful in developing their own people in the art of design thinking, sending them to Stanford’s dSchool or bringing training in-house.

The next, almost inevitable step on the innovation journey was to set up in-house innovation hubs or design shops, charged with coming up with the next “big idea” or “disruptive change”. While few would say so outwardly, many employees from commercial, operations and the like breathed a collective sigh of relief that they could now go back to what was really important (making and selling stuff) and leave the designing to the new innovation professionals.

And herein lies the problem—what is old, is new again. Internal innovation hubs have become the new R&D—a convenient place for the collective to point to when asked, “who’s accountable for innovation here?”. And worse, they have become the new “siloed-off” organization—fighting for a seat at the table, pleading the case for their value, and trying to demonstrate the connection between design and the bottom line.

So now what? While there are no magic bullets, here are some places to start:

  • Designers need to stop talking about their work in design thinking terms and figure out how to communicate to business people in their language.
  • Senior management needs to figure out if they are serious about creating a design culture and then get fanatical about it.
  • Executives need to have tolerance for mess, failure, and the long-term – easier said than done in today’s myopic/quarterly-earnings/what-have-you-done-for-me-lately environment.
  • Both sides need to develop the ability to adapt and connect to each other (a little of that empathy wouldn’t hurt) – at least it would be a start.
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