Research & Innovation

Designing a Solution for Vexing Innovation Problems

It takes a rare kind of executive to admit to his peers he needs some outside perspective to solve a challenge he’s facing. It’s an even rarer one who asks for their insight, and has a forum for which to do so.

But Steve Jacobs is just that kind of executive, and when he asked roundtable participants at a Howe School Alliance for Technology Management meeting to brainstorm some innovative solutions for him, the last thing he felt was trepidation.

“These are good people who I’ve had the chance to meet and get to know, and it’s a very comfortable atmosphere,” said Jacobs, president of Global BioPharm Solutions, located outside Philadelphia. “We’re all trying to figure this out together.”

The Alliance meeting, held at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey’s offices in Newark, was its latest roundtable on design thinking, a novel approach to problem solving that often involves thinking outside the box and acting in ways that may rile the established corporate culture. At its core, design thinking involves a process of problem solving that emphasizes a desire to challenge models, seeks optimization over compromise, makes elegance and simplicity primary considerations, and fosters a willingness to create with your customers by giving up control.

Jacobs presented a challenge to about 30 fellow members scattered across different industries: How could he improve the first impression his company makes on those attending one of its signature conferences?

Within a few minutes, members had come up with everything from beer at the check-in line to digital solutions that involved replacing people at a reception desk with iPads loaded with customized apps. It's hard to imagine another place where the creative juices flow so strongly, but for longtime Alliance members, it was business as usual for a roundtable.

“To get such a range of ideas in just 10 minutes or so is amazing,” he said. “The next step for me is to go back to the board and say that we need to think outside the box here.”

Jacobs said he’d actually kicked some of those ideas around with members of his board before, but that group had a bad experience when it decided to offer shuttle busing from the airport to a convention hotel. Only a few dozen people registered for the buses, but more than 100 were waiting for rides when their flights arrived.

The knee-jerk reaction might be to suggest the attendees are at fault for failing to register in advance, but Jacobs said that’s not so.

“Clearly, that reaction is aimed at us, not customer delight,” he said.

“We almost always have lines,” he added. “The attitude can’t be, ‘These are adults, they ought to expect lines.’ That’s wrong. Everybody hates lines. We have to come up with solutions that improve the experience for everyone who attends.”

‘We can find a way to do this’

If you can’t get rid of the lines, some Alliance members suggested, at least make them less uncomfortable. That’s where the open bar came in, and it sounded like a suggestion Jacobs took seriously.

“This is a hard-drinking crowd,” he said. “We’d like to get them relaxed so that even if there is a line, they won’t care quite as much.”

These are unorthodox ideas, Jacobs said, but “we can do this. We can find way a to do this better for the customers.”

While Jacobs found himself the center of attention, other members found the exercise useful, as well. Susan Miller, of Alcatel-Lucent, participated virtually and enjoyed seeing the early, theory-driven background immediately put in a practical perspective. 

“It really puts the idea into quick example of how it’s practical,” she said. Members presented several obvious ideas, “but they also threw out ideas you never would have thought of. Just the fact that we had an example like that shows it’s more than just theory. That’s very valuable.”

About the Alliance

The Howe School Alliance for Technology Management is a partnership between Stevens and various companies in New Jersey and beyond who meet to network, share best and emerging practices, and explore the challenges and opportunities presented by evolving technology and thought in the workplace. Members meet and network at regular roundtables and workshops, attend an annual conference, and enjoy various other benefits. For more information, visit the Alliance homepage.