Tasks and Practices

How to Innovate

The Four Tasks of Innovation Design

As we researched and developed our understanding of innovation, it has always been directly tied to the practical activity of actually innovating. Searching for an answer to the complex question: "How to innovate?"

Projects from wetland remediation to developing new learning models have been our testing grounds. With each project came a new experiment in evolving a more efficient innovation process, searching for ways to innovate.

While we realized early on that the classical three step process of ideate, plan and make (and all of its countless variations) would never lead to innovation, it took us much longer to develop a powerful alternative holistic process. 

Ideate Plan Make stages of Design Thinking

Working on highly diverse projects forced us to develop many discreet tools and practices that answered specific innovation roadblocks. 

How to Innovate requires: 

  • do real experiments for novelty
  • disclose and block the known
  • engage and follow the unintended
  • develop alternative worlds
  • be far more embodied and rely on know-how over know-what

These tools were enormously helpful. But innovation is not simply about deploying a set of powerful tools in an ad hoc method — how you innovate is about the sequencing of a coherent process. 

As our understanding evolved, our process evolved with it. We have been articulating, testing, and remaking this process through countless iterations. Even when we thought we had it all perfectly worked out (to the point we designed and had a series of posters printed), the surprising nature of innovation itself forced us back to the lab to continue honing the process. (We still have the stack of posters to remind us of our own hubris).

For the last five years we’ve continued refining our process of innovation that consists of four tasks:

  1. Engage
  2. Disclose
  3. Deviate
  4. Emerge

These four tasks can be thought of as a set of interconnected practices or activities. Each takes on a distinct aspect of the innovation process:

  • Engage and Disclose are the tasks necessary to prepare for innovation,  
  • Deviate and Emerge are the two distinct processes that foster the two distinct forms of change: 
  • change-in-degree (Emerge), and
  • change-in-kind (Deviate). 
  • While Deviate fosters a disruptive change, which comes early in the process, 
  • Emerge as a developmental process, always comes at the end to make things real. 

Hence the sequential order of (1) Engage, (2) Disclose, (3) Deviate, (4) Emerge. The sum of the parts is the answer to our question: How to Innovate.

Cycle of 4 Primary Tasks of the Innovation Design Approach

These are interconnected tasks, one flows to the next. Diagramming this, or any innovation process as circular is, as we realized when we had those posters printed, a huge mistake. 

With a circle we immediately lose sight of the fact that there are two radically distinct processes at the heart of innovation: 

  1. change-in-degree (developmental change), and
  2. change-in-kind (disruptive change)

… each of which requires a wholly distinct process. As each task is moving in an entirely different direction.

2 Types of Change - Change in Degree and Change in Kind

Remembering this made us realize that innovation is not circular — it is composed of two connected loops going in opposite directions.

The loop of Deviation points backward and the loop of Emerge points forward

Developing or improving something degree by degree is a progressive and forward moving process. And disruption and the development of a whole new approach is designed to rupture this continual, linear progress. This needs to be shown and understood as two distinct but connected loops:

Change in Kind is Disruptive and Change in Degree as Emergence

Understanding the two distinct pathways of innovation still leaves the key question – how to begin – unanswered.

All activity of change begins by leaving your office, leaving your studio — getting out of your head and joining with the world in a fully engaged manner. 

We don’t start by ideating, empathizing or innovating. We start by immersing ourselves deeply in an ongoing reality. Therefore, the Engage phase begins the process. 

From engagement we find ourselves at a true crossroad — we have to decide: 

  • are we interested in developing within the context of what already exists? 
  • or do we wish to be more radical and develop something that is truly novel?  

Change in Degree is iterative and Change in Kind is disruptive

Thus we show “engage” as moving both:

  • forward to continue into a developmental innovation process (Emerge), and
  • stepping backwards from the forward rush of progress. By pausing to understand the deep hidden logic of your current reality (Disclose) we can enter into a process of Deviation from that reality.

Creativity requires stepping backward before moving forward

While Engagement, Deviation and Emergence are simplest to understand and often get all the attention — it is Disclosure that is key to everything in innovation. No matter what you do — you will never develop a deep, disruptive, paradigm-busting, worldmaking innovation if you do not uncover and block a series of existing practices, habits and worlds.

With a basic understanding of these four phases and how they connect to the two loops of change, we can lay out a simple diagram of the full process:

Engage, Disclose, Deviate & Emerge - the 4 primary tasks of Innovation Design

It's this complete process of Innovation that answers our question: The innovation Design Approach - it's how you innovate.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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