Originally published on “Matters” by Designit


Innovation isn’t the issue, says the pioneering interaction designer. Decision-making and its role inside the organization are what’s holding us back.


This is part two of an interview series with Alan Cooper, “The Father of Visual Basic,” and co-founder of the pioneering design firm Cooper, which was acquired by Designit in October. Alan is the author of About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design.


Designit: Last time we spoke, you said managers should stop trying to balance cost control and innovation, and that companies must change what they value. What exactly should they value?


Alan: The scarce resource is not creativity or innovation. It’s time to reflect, think, and plan. Everybody is in a hurry. Why? Because business people believe in first-mover advantage. Reject this idea. It has been widely debunked. Business people are in a hurry simply because of cost control. They talk a good game in innovation, but the mechanisms of a business — how people are hired, reviewed, and promoted — hinge on cost control, not innovation. There’s a run rate in the way you control costs. It’s by doing what you know. Innovation is doing what you don’t know.


Designit: What is the working definition of innovation for a C-level person?


Alan: It’s a hollow buzzword. The former CEO of Autodesk, Carl Bass, liked to tell me a story about modern suitcases, which we all know have wheels. It’s a popular example of innovation in business. But he asked the question in a way that was provocative and remarkable: How many times did someone at Samsonite say why don’t we put wheels on these suitcases, and someone else said no, we can’t do that.


In 1970, Bernard Sadow, VP of the luggage company Travelpro, saw an airport worker rolling a heavy machine onto a wheeled skid — and realized he could put wheels on luggage. After months of sales calls with his prototype, Macy’s ordered and promoted “the Luggage that Glides,” and it became a huge success. But how many times did someone propose wheels, how many times was it shot down, and what was the rationale?


Designit: Are we more open to change now?


Alan: Things like this are still happening all the time. It’s not how we do things around here. You don’t need to define innovation, you need to define decision-making and its role inside the organization. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that this is the #1 problem in business.


Designit: Does the same advice apply for the digital world?


Alan: Executives are taught to manage factories. But factories don’t invent things, they make things. I believe digital is more about inventing than it is about making. This central problem is the same.


Designit: What do you think of the tech culture trend of embracing failure?


Alan: That’s design thinking, fail fast, and all that shit. I’m not impressed. In my experience, the notion behind it is that innovation takes place in a hurry. Innovation doesn’t mean a weekend hackathon. It means that on a day to day basis, you reward failure. Maybe sometimes it comes in a flash of insight while you’re taking a shower. But most companies are involved in managing existing products in an existing product marketplace.


Designit: Why is it so difficult for businesses to cope with the tumult that innovation creates?


Alan: Businesspeople value predictability and efficiency. If someone comes along and says, “I’ve been managing this product for a year and I’ve found another way to do this,” he or she still has to overcome a lot of inertia within the organization.


In Walter Isaacson’s book, Steve Jobs, he talks about how Jobs, shortly before the iPhone shipped, had an epiphany. He realized that the case that enclosed the bezel should instead come up to the edge of the bezel, to put more of the bezel forward and make it touchable. He went to his lieutenants and said, we gotta redesign this, so the case will not go over the top of the bezel. They freaked out. Are you kidding? It’ll cost us hundreds of millions to retool. The marketing is ready to go, the photos are taken, it’s in the queue. Our media buys are done. We can’t do it. Jobs said nope, we’re gonna do it. They paid hundreds of millions to change it. That’s the gritty nature of innovation. Do you decide to be innovative and better, or do you decide to be efficient?


Designit: How do you get people to stay true to their work even when it contradicts what the client expects?


Alan: At Cooper we empowered teams to speak truth to power. A few times, in the early days, a client was unhappy with our results. We backed our people. For innovation to happen, you have to get gritty. Once we told a client they were taking the wrong step and it turned them around. Another time, we got fired. So we started training our teams in how to deliver bad news to a client. We decided that even if we risked getting fired, we still needed to tell clients what we were seeing out there. We had to learn to deliver NO as an answer, explain why we needed more exposure to research, and then fight, fight, fight to get a budget.


Designit: It’s a delicate dynamic between a consultant and their client.


Alan: And an internal dynamic between the in-house design staff and the outside consultant. The latter is better at being the shock troops of change because they have lot of authority. People listen to them, and then they go away. The in-house staff gets short shrift. People get dismissive because they are familiar with them, and say things like, “Oh that’s just Joe,” when Joe has a good idea.


Twenty years ago, Cooper really thrived in that role of being the shock troops — at pointing a knife. A lot of people brought us into their organization realizing it was probably not good for their career, but they knew that their organization needed to hear the hard news.


Designit: What kind of people do you need on a creative team?


Alan: Homo sapiens. We are remarkably inventive. You don’t want to have all bouncing-off-the-walls creative people or you’ll have a kindergarten. You do need a mix of people. But the fundamental dilemma is not creativity. It’s cost control. How do you take an organization whose skill set, goals, compensation, lure, and unspoken taboos are all built around doing a known thing and inject success into it by people who are advocating unknown things?


Designit: Is management the bottleneck?


Alan: Being a manager today is fucking hard. Being an interaction designer or good coder or engineer is not that hard. If you’re a manager, everything you know is wrong. All the rubrics and metrics for management aren’t very good. A client can come to Designit with a working concept and ask what’s the ROI on that — but who’s asking what’s the ROI on management? How do you know if someone is a good manager? He or she keeps costs under control! There’s the conflict. Keeping costs under control also means keeping innovation under control, or suppressing innovation.


In the next interview, Alan Cooper says he wants to create a taxonomy to handle bad technological and design behavior. He intends to do it through his new tech-political movement, “Ancestry Thinking,” which focuses on making the world better for our children. Stay tuned…


Part I: Alan Cooper on Designing the Future




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