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A graphical representation of design thinking - Envision and Realize

July 16, 2012

I have been spending some time thinking about a graphical representation for the design thinking and innovation processes.

Design Concepts’ product development process is shown as a “process wheel” that, in my opinion, describes a very understandable and logical “stage gate” process. I believe this schematic is very useful for conveying the formal steps that many formal, organized development projects go through.

Stage Gate constructs are particularly useful projects that have clearly delineated phases or when approvals are required before proceeding from one phase to another.

Unfortunately, while stage gate systems do a nice job of defining a product development process, they are not really very descriptive of a broader range of innovation activities - more accurately described by design thinking methodologies and processes.

A pretty well-recognized limitation with this type of linear construct is that real design processes are messy, iterative and highly flexible – often bumping back and forth between the various phases. Early discovery efforts lead to frameworks and conclusions that often ask as many questions as the answer – sometimes require additional discovery and exploration to inform a shifting business strategy. At the same time, technical explorations both illuminate new opportunities and close off what had appeared to be promising ones.

These two activities – Envision and Realize – are going on in parallel within many innovation programs – often with a bit of healthy tension and interplay.

For this reason a number of people have tried to capture more iterative “Design Thinking” processes graphically. Here is someone’s process that talks about the possibility of having to loop through the process a few times.

There are many others like this that I’ve seen. While not literally “linear” I think all of these struggle to capture the real iterative interplay between the various activities that I’ve found occur during the innovation process.

Lately I’ve been thinking about an innovation process within the construct of two words that are being used more and more here at Design Concepts – Envision and Realize. I really like these words and feel that they embody the two basic camps of activities that are in play (and in natural tension) during the innovation process. Envision – or efforts to imagine new future possibilities – uses a process of discovery, analysis, frameworks and decision making to define and select new business strategies, product concepts, user paradigms, new needs, etc. Realize is the effort necessary to bring those strategies and concepts to life – often shaping hypotheses and concepts through the realities of cost, technical risk, time, money, physics, etc.

These two activities – Envision and Realize – are going on in parallel within many innovation programs – often with a bit of healthy tension and interplay. It’s probably a bit stereotypical but often we’ll see the marketing arms of our clients leading the “Envision” efforts and the R&D or technical ends focusing on “Realize”. In the best processes and companies, Envision and Realize are simultaneous and co-informing with each adapting to opportunities and limitations uncovered by the other.

Elizabeth – our very talented information designer helped me sketch out the following construct which I feel does a nice job of showing how these two activities intersect and interact.

I like how it captures that “Envision” and “Realize” activities are often simultaneous and iterative – with an ongoing process of discover-synthesize-advise and ideate-prototype-test-refine orbiting continuously and informing each other’s activities.

I also like the placement of the “light bulb” of innovation squarely between the two camps with the spark of creativity driven by discovery, synthesis and ideation.