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Human Centered Innovation: Its time has come

Human Centered Innovation: Its time has come

Perhaps the most significant epic journey of modern times is not found in literature, but in the real-time voyage of man into space — mankind walking on the moon and seeing “spaceship earth” floating against the black backdrop of the universe, and bringing that extraordinary shift of perspective back to the planet.

Edgar Mitchell, a member of the 1971 Apollo XIV crew, is one of those rare people who had the privilege of walking on the moon’s surface, and I once interviewed Edgar about his experience. After relating many stories about his training, his launch, and some “creative moments” of last-minute software fixes on the moon landing module, he spoke about how his experience in space led to his returning to Earth as a different person. He said,

The powerful experience of seeing Earth and our whole solar system against the background of the cosmos had a very profound effect… an overwhelming sense of being connected to all things… and the enormous sense of responsibility that goes with the power of creativity…”

He summed up his transformation, and that of many fellow space travelers, by saying,

We went to the moon as technicians… We returned as humanitarians.”

That same shift in perspective has emerged in the practice of how we innovate… not just excelling at technical innovation, but focusing ever more on the human dimension. And not just when innovating new products, but innovating every aspect of business and organizational life… indeed, how we innovate our future societies and our life on planet earth!

As one example, over the past 5 years, IBM has consciously shifted its strategy and culture from being a top engineering firm that “develops a new product that we believe customers will want to buy, and then trying to sell it.” It has invested a great deal to become a world class, human centered design firm by putting the human value of “empathy” front and center in the way they innovate – putting themselves into the shoes of their customers, caring for them as people, and striving to serve their true needs. And along the way, they have tripled their efficiency for on-target product development.

Design Thinking and Agile Innovation are two early expressions in the evolution of this kind of Human Centered Innovation. Even the name “design thinking” has morphed into “human centered design.”

Human Centered Innovation is a particular approach to being innovative, thinking innovatively, and acting innovatively. Its tri-fold nature of 3 principles — being holistic, inclusive, and values-driven makes it a natural and powerful practice for innovating to optimize the benefits to all stakeholders, from end-user customers to the entire planet.

Let’s examine those 3 principles, which are foundational, not “nice to have,” for thriving rather than just surviving in today’s complex, hyper-changing world.

Being holisticHuman Centered Innovation focuses on every aspect of innovating for sustainable success, including product quality, talent development, business strategy, community relationships, and the natural environment. For example, at Unilever, the world’s 3rd largest fast moving consumer goods company, they sum up their entire business model this way: “Our distinct Purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. Our Vision is to (a) grow our business, while (b) decoupling our environmental footprint from our growth, and (c) increasing our positive social impact.”

Being inclusive… Human Centered Innovation engages not only experts and specialists to innovate; it unleashes the innovative talent of every person, in every job, every day. Years ago, the executives at Charles Schwab realized that their sustainable success in the fast-expanding world of high finance could not be sustained by just having a few key innovators. They began to engage every employee to innovate solutions to the challenges they faced in their everyday work.

Being values-driven... Research on team innovation at Hewlett Packard Labs showed that the difference between successful vs. extraordinary teams was NOT talent, creativity, motivation, or vision. Rather, it was truly caring for the end-customer, and for each other, and being honest and authentic. The result was a climate of psychological safety and well-being that brought out their innovative best.

Human Centered Innovation is continuing to evolve beyond Design Thinking and Agile Innovation in terms of the mindset, culture, and process that activate these 3 principles in everyday work. Its fullness and maturity have yet to be reached. Unlocking the deeper dimensions of Design Thinking and Agile Innovation is a step in that direction, and this deeper dive includes:

    • A broader practice of good character values to energize, guide, and motivate what, how, and why we innovate
    • An enriched innovation process that is emotionally satisfying as well as mentally rigorous
    • Employing distinctly different styles and strategies of innovative thinking throughout the process
    • Integrating and amplifying the qualities of innovative teamwork with each task of the process
    • Maturing a new paradigm for the organizational culture

Human Centered Innovation can enable us to generate sustainable success, accelerated careers, vibrant organizations, healthy societies, and fulfilled lives. Indeed, the potential and promise of Human Centered Innovation, as it evolves, is to enable us to rise to the challenge of innovating as humanitarians, not just technicians, as a natural part of our everyday work. 

William Miller's picture
About the author

William C. Miller, co-founder of Values Centered Innovation, is passionate about integrating emotional intelligence, human values, and mental discipline with our innate capabilities to be innovative.