Managing Innovation with Design Thinking: Part 3

The story behind the RFID Inventory Tracking Robot continued . . .

Part III: The Need for Collaboration in Design Thinking

Retail and more precisely department stores in the United States is a business under severe pressure from online pure plays like Amazon. Apart from few “Off Price” retailers, almost everyone else is facing stagnant revenue growth and increasing costs resulting in dwindling margins. It is for such an industry that we are developing this revolutionary product, a RFID inventory tracking smart robot (to obtain one single view on inventory). An industry, which by all measures is on a downward spiral.

So how did this rather bleak industry outlook influence our design thinking approach for innovation strategy?

We realized the need to offer flexibility to clients in terms of “getting on board”. They would be naturally averse to large CapEx investments in an area, which they consider to be not yet mature (robotics in retail).

We understood the need for other “auxiliary” benefits for a retailer from a robot beyond inventory, for ROI justification. However we were conscious not to waver on the key offering of retail inventory management across channels.

It was evident that the robot must be autonomous in every possible way to avoid involving store associates in its operation. Store associates are already stretched with many different and demanding tasks and they simply do not want to take care of a robot. We even went to the length of actually checking job postings for store associates, in order to understand their required skill levels. This enabled us to determine their suitability to operate a robot.

We had to build a RFID inventory tracking robot, which behaves less like a robot and more like an appliance. An inventory appliance, which does its job without much fanfare. Just like how our washing machines and refrigerators work.

It was clear that if we want to appeal to the so called Innovators and Early Adopters and Cross the Chasm as per Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Life Cycle, we had to create a value proposition in line with above realities. I must admit that the above revelations impacted our design in a significant manner. We also did not want to limit ourselves to these explicit needs of our customer as we payed attention to rather latent needs as well. We understand that some of these could be quite futuristic in retail, which is positive from a product road map standpoint. Some of these latent and implied needs were identified by looking at competitor offerings and also by thinking deep about our clients and their challenges in Omnichannel fulfillment.

Image: RFID Inventory Tracking Robot, AZIRO. A product of Zone24x7.

When embarking on a project like this, one needs to clearly assess the strengths and capabilities (core competencies) of the team. We were under no delusion that we are capable of doing everything on our own. We believe that the right kind of partnerships would immensely improve the chances of reaching our customers faster.

Human Centered Design and Collaboration as a Force Multiplier

We are already in discussion with potential manufacturing partners. We leverage on their knowledge not only to enhance the design to be technically feasible but also to ensure that it is desirable and viable from a client’s business standpoint. Once fully operational, we realized how critical these RFID inventory tracking robots would be for our clients and the need for minimal downtime. Hence, we are thinking long term and reaching out to partners with the necessary infrastructure and capacity to repair and maintain these robots for our customers.

A thorough value chain analysis was conducted to understand, where exactly we fit-in in this value chain equation of our retail clients. To our delight, we saw many more potential opportunities to partner with organizations, who are already marketing complementing solutions and services for a common clientele in retail.

The kind of complex and connected systems, which are required today to solve challenging business problems of our clients, cannot be solved with the creative genius of an individual or an organization. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the key.

The Mind of the Design Thinker

In a world where technology is fast becoming a commodity, I would like to consider the more right brain leaning task of design thinking and the design thinking processes as a true competitive advantage. Once internalized by every individual and every business function of an organization, design thinking and its processes should be part of an organizational culture or rather “How we do things here”.

Tim Brown in his 2008 HBR article “Design Thinking” has highlighted several characteristics of a Design Thinker such as Empathy, Integrative Thinking, Optimism, Experimentalism and Collaboration. It’s advisable for a team to reflect upon themselves to see how much they demonstrate such behavior.

Final Thoughts

Developing disruptive products, like in our case pose many challenges to a team. Design Thinking brings clarity into the process and helps the team better articulate the purpose or the “why” of the products or service. Out of many benefits, finding our “why” for the Autonomous Retail Inventory Tracking Robot might probably be rated as the best outcome of adopting Design Thinking and Design Thinking Processes.

You can read Part 1 and 2 of this series, Managing Innovation with Design Thinking, here.

References and Further Reading:

  • Brown, T. (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review
  • Brown, T. (2009). Change By Design. New York: HarperCollins
  • Kelley, T., & Littman, J. (2001). The Art of Innovation (1st ed.). New York: Random House
  • Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within us all. New York: Random House

Nuwan Weerasinghe

Was Head of Marketing

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