Innovation reimagined: Leading a post-crisis transformation

Executive Director & Partner
Associate Strategy Director

About the salon

The COVID pandemic isn’t entirely over, as we’re still grappling with new variants of the virus. Yet as some aspects of the crisis recede, companies and organizations are taking stock of what’s changed—and where to go next. But first, they must consider the current state of innovation and human-centered design, and how it has been transformed. How have they adapted, and what lessons have been learned? And what are the new opportunities for brands and businesses?

Welcome to Innovation 2.0

An in-depth report on post-crisis innovation from Smart Design

Welcome to Innovation 2.0

An in-depth report on post-crisis innovation from Smart Design

Our panelists

Alastair Curtis is the chief design officer at Logitech, a world leader in products that connect people in a natural, intuitive way to the digital experiences they care about. Over the past decade, he was responsible for growing the company’s global design capability to more than 200 members of the Design Team.

Craig Dubitsky is the chief innovation strategist at Colgate-Palmolive, a leading global consumer products company dedicated to improving the health and wellness of people and their pets. Before taking on this role, he was the founder of the natural oral-care brand Hello Products, which Colgate-Palmolive acquired in 2020.

Catherine Sun is the senior vice president of product design at CLEAR, a secure identity technology company that’s aiming to create a world people can move through easily by “simply being themselves.” In this position, she’s helping to expand their platform offering into new sectors including entertainment, healthcare, and travel services.

Introduction

The discussion was led by Tucker Fort, a partner at Smart Design, and Morgane Le Beguet, associate director of strategy, and informed by in-depth interviews we recently conducted with 10 design and innovation leaders that will be featured in an upcoming report. We asked three of the interviewees to join our panel to discuss the need for faster innovation cycles, why human-centered design also applies to organizations, and how the pandemic opened new opportunities to broaden the role of a design leader. 

Here are the evening’s key takeaways:

Innovate in real-time

Panelists agreed that the pandemic has been a game changer on so many levels, including speeding up innovation development timelines in response to new consumer behaviors and needs. Catherine Sun, a senior VP of product design at secure identity technology company CLEAR said the air travel shutdown early in the pandemic posed a daunting challenge for her company, which provides secure identity verification to airports that let passengers skip long TSA lines. Yet company leadership recognized an opportunity to expand its offerings and create a new business model, pushing “hard and fast into other verticals in the middle of the pandemic.” For example, it added sports and entertainment venues to its CLEAR network, allowing guests to enter facilities by unlocking a QR code on the CLEAR app on their phones. Another opening was healthcare passes that serve as digital proof of vaccination to access public spaces. The company will soon be launching a secure digital identity platform for car rental firms so that a driver’s identity can be verified after their license is uploaded to a mobile phone.

Having just arrived at Colgate-Palmolive when COVID hit, Craig Dubitsky quickly recognized the connection between the need for more hand washing to help prevent the spread of the virus and the company’s position as the leading producer of solid soap and liquid hand soap. After floating the idea to distribute free soap-“very innocently,” he recalled-the company swung into action worldwide. It eventually distributed more than 26 million bars of soap—with specially designed packaging and instructions on proper handwashing —to frontline workers, medication communities, and those without access to sanitation products. “The coolest thing was that we did this really fast,” Dubitsky said. The effort involved retooling plants on various continents to manufacture more soap, and partnering with the World Health Organization. “The idea that you can innovate in real-time at the speed of thought is in itself an innovation,” he concluded.

At Logitech, chief design officer Alastair Curtis said the company had for some time been shifting gears from “designing for the future” to meeting and optimizing for specific needs—what he called “designing for all.” As company CEO Bracken Darrell put it in a Fortune magazine article, “the idea is not to build products merely to fill a niche, but to build products to fill a need, and to do so in a way that creates emotional resonance and crafts a comfortable, seamless user experience.” The most recent example is a line of a more ergonomically designed computer mouse. These include a smaller version, and one for those who are left-handed. The new mouse designs focus on comfort—particularly for women (who tend to have smaller hands) and left-handed people (who are often neglected in consumer product design)—and reflect the movement away from generic design. Curtis suggested that this design direction resonated during COVID, which had “amplified our understanding that people are suffering ergonomically” with so many working long hours at home.

Digitize the innovation process

More than ever during COVID, companies have applied digital practices to innovation itself. While a global corporation such as Logitech was already operating as a “weird hybrid” of being both synchronous and asynchronous, Curtis said, the pandemic was a “massive accelerant” of this process. Virtually overnight, his company equipped remote staff, established work rhythms, and taught skills (from Zoom calls to Miro walls), and was mindful about helping staff prevent burnout or spiraling out of control. “It was an incredibly complex, Darwinian sink-or-swim moment that we were all going through,” he explained. Although some activities did involve physical meetups—albeit in unusual locations, such as parking lots, to share work—Curtis found it fascinating “to have 50 people working remotely having a conversation, which we wouldn’t have dreamt of in the past.” He believes this digital transformation process engenders a democratization of the design process, and lets the company “rip up the rulebook as far as where talent was located, because talent could now be anywhere.”

Sun agreed that adopting more digital tools during the pandemic has “essentially supercharged” the design and innovation community. “You could bring disparate, distanced voices and minds together in one digital space to work through challenges together,” she commented (even though it wasn’t always “together,” as work has often been done in different time zones). Another digital advantage is being able to drop emojis, GIFs, and video clips into discussions, thereby infusing “humor and emotion and weirdness into what would otherwise be dry email threads or a bunch of sticky notes.” By providing a way for these human elements to come through, digital communications tools “give more dimensionality and richness to the collaboration and conversations,” she said. In the long run, Sun believes the digital innovation process will “boost the quality of thought and output” in part because there are now fewer excuses not to collaborate.

For Dubitsky, a surprising benefit of digital collaboration and innovation has been “the ability to see people dreaming, engaging, spitballing, and brainstorming from where they live and are really the most comfortable.” Whether this takes place in, say, a participant’s bedroom or a car parked somewhere, he says such situations “immensely humanize” the way people are sharing by offering “both a literal and a figurative window into where and how they are living.” Not in a voyeuristic way, he emphasized. But rather to better understand their environment—that is, their comfort zone— in which “95 percent of people do their dreaming and try to come up with the future.” A  common experience of this new way of working is that people often comment on something they see or what happens in their personal space or background, such as kids or a dog that wanders in. This, in turn, “becomes part of the creative session,” Dubitsky said. “ By comparison, he said that off-site meetings that take place within a discrete time period can be “contrived.” 

Design a human-centered organization

Human-centered design principles anchor the creation of products and services, and during the pandemic, organizations looked inward and began applying these same principles to their operations. While design has always been about putting humans at the center, to Sun this now must  mean “a full rainbow spectrum of humans and especially edge cases and users and marginalized populations.” She underscored that today’s organization must also consider another three-letter acronym—DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). Noting that accessible, inclusive design is more important now than ever as companies are in the midst of digital transformation.  She urges designers to allow time during development cycles not only for “making your UX and UI bulletproof for usability” but also to create “equitably comprehensible and equitably effective designs for all.”

At his startup Hello Products, Dubitsky instilled the idea that “we’re not just human-centered around the design of our products but the design of the company.” When Colgate-Palmolvie acquired Hello in 2020, and Dubitsky became its chief innovation strategist, he wanted to seed this approach in a global company. After all, he argues that building an organization or a team is, to some degree, like choosing your family, and can be successful at both a small enterprise and a larger one. A strategy he uses in recruitment is to ask candidates to simply think of something they love and then draw it, regardless of the role they’re interested in, even if they’re not designers. The goal of this homework, as he calls it, is to find people who have a passion, skill, or love for doing something that can fit the company’s needs so that they—and the organization—can thrive. One example was a person who excelled at making intricate mazes—of different sizes, on walls, for instance, and on the heads of coins—and so that is what she drew. Now, Dubitsky said, “her day job in logistics involves figuring out how to navigate complex mazes.” If there’s no clear path from Point A to Point B, “she has to develop one to get through this maze.” In such a “magical scenario,” as he described, if you find the right fit for people with special skills and interests “they will work with more passion and intensity and we would all benefit.”

For his part, Curtis suggested that it was more appropriate for Logitech to expand its development focus from people-centric to the community and a planet-centric strategy. “You always have to be very crisp and specific about whom you are designing for,” he said, “[but] there’s also the filter of the planet.” To that end, he says the design team at Logitech is being reorganized to ensure every project is seen through the lens of sustainability. The goal is to address both the needs of individuals and to create what Logitech calls “a more equitable and climate positive world.” Initiatives include achieving carbon neutrality across the company’s entire value chain; labeling products’ carbon impact to inform consumers; and reducing waste by using post-consumer recycled plastics at scale. The company also partners with groups that champion DEI and social justice in their communities.

Rethink design leadership

Panelists concurred that the role of a design leader has changed significantly during the pandemic. Before COVID, “you knew fairly well where you were and what you were doing,” Curtis acknowledged. “But when COVID kicked in, all bets were off, and the norms of the past were now very different.” For one thing, leaders had to be more acutely aware of people’s needs and individual living situations, and even their personalities, such as being an introvert. As everyone was living in their own bubble, “It was critical to spend more time listening and giving people space,” he said, and trying to manage their health and wellbeing, which he likened to pastoral care. With the support of CEO Bracken Darrell, the company established new work models—such as “no-meeting Fridays’ ‘and  eliminated nine-to-five schedules—to provide both flexibility and stability and also inspire creativity. Equally important, Curtis says it was critical that leaders too show their humanity—and vulnerabilities. 

Sun says she used her skills as both a nurturer and a design researcher to keep her staff creative and productive and on track during COVID. “I pointed my design research skills right at my team,” she recalled, seeking a deeper understanding of how they were doing. This is especially important during uncertain times, or when social or political conditions “change on a dime,” she added, noting that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade happened during a Zoom call with staff. What’s more, she realized that a leader can no longer casually infer or observe when others are “telegraphing disengagement or discomfort.” Instead, Sun regularly questions and has discussions about learning styles, communications, and triggers. According to Sun, “We all know that ideas flow and brilliant solutions manifest when minds are open, people feel safe, and hearts are light.”

As a design leader at Colgate-Palmolive, Dubitsky says he faces the challenge of how to inspire the “go-go” enthusiasm that existed at his start-up Hello Products inside a large legacy company with a mature business. To accomplish this, he regards his role as “trying to unleash creativity and [a] can-do that’s already there, and coming up with cool, funky new ways to manifest it—quickly, and at scale,” he explained. For instance: how to bring a new level of emotional and cultural relevance to stable consumer product categories, such as oral care. One suggestion is to think of each of the company’s nearly 35,000 employees as an entrepreneur. Another way to inspire innovation: take on new challenges outside your comfort zone-which is what Dubitsky himself did when he accepted the position of innovation strategist at Colgate-Palmolive. He doesn’t regard this move as an exit strategy, as some suggested it was, but instead as a unique entrance and opportunity—a “chance to bring Colgate’s message and behaviors to many more people all over the world. It’s a gift.”

Conclusion

The pandemic has forced companies to radically rethink everything about their organizations—often at warp speed. As they come through to the other side, leaders are thinking about lessons learned, which new technology tools to maintain, and policies that promote the health and wellbeing of staff. “After pressing the pause button, we have to figure out how to slingshot the company forward,” as Curtis put it. Achieving a better future in this new environment will be driven by people, often working remotely but communicating more dynamically, innovating quickly in response to fast-changing events, and informed by the recognition that humanity itself is the new frontier of human-centered design.

Tools for now

Aim for faster innovation
When consumer behavior and trends rapidly shift, mobilize teams to assess the current state of need, analyze data, and devise ways to accelerate innovation with shorter iterative cycles and development timelines.

Prioritize digital tools
Understand how new communications and collaboration platforms can foster more creative thinking, transparency, and trust among geographically diverse teams, and evaluate which tools to maintain and expand in a hybrid work environment.

Facilitate human-centered organizations
Introduce human-centered design principles to all aspects of how teams work, interact, and innovate, and integrate these principles as a strategic capability across the entire organization.

Explore new roles for design leaders
Look at ways in which design leaders can function better as creative connectors and empower empathy, with particular attention to ensuring diversity and recruiting a “rainbow spectrum” of talent at the leadership level that will contribute to more inclusive design.

About Tucker Fort

Tucker is a pioneering design voice at Smart Design. He thrives on creating market-defining consumer experiences that make the most of emerging technologies, most recently with Gatorade. Tucker has also worked on some of Smart’s most standout work including OXO, HP, Nissan, P&G, Under Armour, Samsung and Tiffany & Co. His deep expertise in research and strategy serves him well when inspiring teams to design with meaning. Tucker frequently speaks about innovation design and business, and you can find his writing in publications like Entrepreneur, Surface, Fast Company, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg/Businessweek.

About Morgane Le Beguet

Morgane is an Associate Strategy Director focused on Business Design. She brings expertise in research strategy and design thinking, blending analytics and design to help teams understand their business and lead powerful transformations. Morgane has worked across multiple sectors, including financial planning, consumer goods, ad tech, and hospitality. Her notable clients include J.P. Morgan Chase, Citibank Ventures, and Jean-Georges. She holds a Bachelor’s in Business of Commerce from McGill University and a Master’s in Strategic Design & Management from Parson’s School of Design. 

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