Journal of Commercial Biotechnology

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 301–307 | Cite as

Innovation in R&D: Using design thinking to develop new models of inventiveness, productivity and collaboration

  • Tad SimonsEmail author
  • Arvind Gupta
  • Mary Buchanan
Original Article


By adapting insights and methodologies from design thinking, a modern scientific R&D organization may have the potential to increase the speed, inventiveness and vitality of their output and become an explosive engine of growth. Modern design consultancies face the challenge of producing original, creative work for their clients on project after project, and have thus developed several strategies and behaviors to produce innovative content repeatedly at a fast pace. The innovation strategies of design firms are different than traditional models of academic and scientific scholarship and rely on new models of radical collaboration by teams, knowledge sharing, wide-reaching cross-pollination and the habit of gaining early insights through tangible expressions of ideas in order to foster continual and rapid innovation.


innovation collaboration productivity research and development design thinking 


The creativity, inventiveness and productivity of R&D teams is an important part of the growth strategy of most high-tech organizations. This is increasingly important today when other avenues of growth and profitability are already contributing at their limits – M&A, operational excellence and so on. In this landscape, organic, internal R&D stands out as the strongest pillar of innovation – if it can be newly productive.

Over the years, designers have developed approaches to innovation that have the intention of increasing the speed, originality and viability of new concepts in order to arrive at better solutions sooner. This is a vital core business competency for design firms, who face the daunting task of adding an original and creative ‘spark’ to every project at a rather rapid rate. Such a business model cannot rely on ‘lone geniuses’ and singular creative moments to produce great ideas consistently, frequently and abundantly (hundreds of times per year).

Traditionally, design thinking1, 2 – empathetic, intuitive, explorative and empowering methodologies – have seen their primary application in product and service development and little application in traditional corporate scientific and technical research. The current thinking may be that scientific teams can only make progress with a different model of work – deep craft and intensive knowledge about a technical domain, applied to the rigorous process of the scientific method (creating and testing hypotheses in controlled experiments), and communicated through peer-reviewed channels to assure the integrity of the results. The model has its roots in academia and supports a respected model of scholarship.

While academic research may have a goal of establishing reputations and individual scholarship, corporate research goals share many of the challenges of design that were mentioned above: speed, originality and viability.

The similarities of purpose with corporate scientific R&D and designers are remarkable, suggesting that some of the approaches of design thinking could apply to scientific R&D. In particular, Table 1 suggests strong alignment in several categories:
Table 1

Goals and motivations in R&D


Corporate R&D

Academic R&D

Business productivity

Business productivity

Personal (and grant) productivity

Retaining and spreading knowledge to internal teams (and clients)

Retaining and spreading knowledge to internal teams

Retaining and spreading knowledge via publication

Building value to customers in the marketplace

Building value to customers in the marketplace

Building reputation with peers and grantors

Creating impact for a wide external user audience

Creating impact for a wide external user audience

Creating impact through communication and training of other scientists

Toward these common goals, designers have developed approaches that routinely enrich the pace, quantity and quality of ideas. Specifically, design thinkers excel at
  1. 1

    finding inspiration from a very wide range of sources;

  2. 2

    collaborating radically (on teams and/or with sponsors);

  3. 3

    sharing knowledge – and making it easily accessible to others;

  4. 4

    exploring options and ideas early to clarify assumptions.


Looking at the last two goals specifically, it is worth noting that designers and businesses face exacting external audiences (customers) who place special demands on the products and services they purchase. The value that customers perceive may be decided by many things other than technical innovation, for example: usability, serviceability, cost of use and so on and integration into existing workflows. Customers also frequently choose products – even highly technical products – for emotional reasons: fear of change, display of status and so on. The stories of ‘inferior technology’ prevailing in markets are too numerous to mention. Design thinking – with its empathetic, intuitive and explorative approach – can connect researchers closely to their human users. For corporate research, such empathy is arguably the best way to assure that teams consistently work only on the right things (valuable to customers). This much-desired activity alone would transform productivity of most corporate labs.

Many research laboratories may excel at these skills already; however, many laboratories also seek to emulate aspects of academic institutions, perhaps embracing the familiarity of the environment from which corporations draw their talented people. In either case, it is useful to ask the following:
  • What can corporate R&D learn from design thinkers in each of the categories above? (And what are scientific R&D labs doing (or not doing) to encourage similar behavior?)

  • What are the ways to motivate teams to try new models of innovation, if the insights from design thinking apply? How might sponsors align new incentives and models of success with the current aspirations of R&D teams?

The remainder of this article will examine how the four skills used by designers may apply to scientific R&D.


New perspectives from the outside

Fresh insights need new perspectives as inspiration. Especially at the beginning of research, additional perspectives enrich possibilities, expand the range of thinking and encourage the discovery of unexpected connections. Designers know that these fresh perspectives will come from getting out into the field, and observing things in context – seeing, feeling, connecting to the design challenges they face. Insight gathering frequently begins with immersion in the topic (to understand high-level issues and the history of prior innovation), followed by in-field, empathetic user research, followed by synthesis of observations. Frequently, designers will look at the problem in the abstract (issue: doctors are not communicating in the operating room) and seek inspiration from analogous situations with similar needs (a racing pit crew? A global NASA team?).

Example: A team designing a new instrument for a core lab was surprised by the similarity between a commercial printing shop and a core lab. Both places rely on customers bringing materials to them for expert processing and expert advice. Both rely on the quality of the incoming material to create a high-quality result – and have the need to assess materials before processing them. Visiting this diverse environment allowed the technically focused biology team to understand the difference between the work processes that support good results and the exciting technologies that create the results. Inspired by proven processes in another domain, the team created innovative support tools for core lab scientists.

Multidisciplinary teams

Designers seek inspiration in people, and get perspectives from a very wide range of people and talents. Imagine a typical team in R&D in biology: a principle investigator (molecular biologist) assisted by others, perhaps an assay chemist or a toxicology expert, with support from core labs (mass spectrometry, flow cytometry). Compared to a design team, these talented people look very similar – all scientists cut from a similar cloth. In contrast, a multi-disciplinary design team may comprise an anthropologist, a visual designer, an engineer and a business expert.
  • What new interactions might occur in a biology team by adding non-biology disciplines (say, a physicist, or micro-fluidics expert)?

  • How would perspectives from new participants (say, a materials scientist, or even a historian) enrich a project review?

  • What are new mixes of scientific and technical disciplines that would inspire new conversations?

A key component of inspiration gathering – and team building – is empathy. A cross-functional team is NOT just a team derived from different parts of the organization – it is a team where members really want to hear and value the viewpoints of the others, that is, members bring their own craft to a team, but have deep empathy and respect for others on the team.

Collaborating radically

The most creative and productive design teams find the richest insights in these intersections between disciplines and perspectives. Aiding and abetting opportunities for such intersections is a characteristic of the most productive design teams. Pulling deeply from the experience of every member is always a goal. (Does the traditional model of Principal Investigator directing a team empower interactions?)


Design thinkers support intense collaboration in several ways. It is typical that design teams co-habit spaces dedicated to their challenge. In a large room with a common desk area, it can seem like teams are living together. In turn, this intimacy promotes frequent conversations, early sharing of ideas (where others can build on the thoughts) and builds trust. Trust and intimacy create the setting for co-workers to be vulnerable with their ideas, sharing ideas when they are emergent rather than fully formed. At this stage, a great team will not only generate more ideas, but also help build small thoughts into big ideas (or share evidence to encourage a better path before investing more). Other creative institutions support similar ideas. 3

Example: The development of an instrument for nucleic acid purification included automating protocols and integrating biological reactions in a consumable product. Project leadership moved biologists and engineers into a common space for cohabitation during development. Previously, these two disciplines had completely different approaches to their work, and different comfort levels with ambiguity. (Engineers had a linear process and desired precise understanding of constraints, while biologists accepted the uncertainties in their processes and experiments.) With biologists ready to give instant feedback about new ideas to the engineering team, the team expanded options and increased productivity. Also, they built empathy for each other and the different constraints they faced. As a result, these teams elected to stay together through all phases of development because they shared ideas quickly and effectively.

Persistent knowledge

Design spaces typically also support ‘persistent knowledge’, meaning ways to share and keep present all the interesting things that the team is finding and discovering. Full-wall white boards, portable boards for photos, presentations and capturing ideas help bring every thought and insight out in the open. Materials are less thought provoking when stored away. Gestation in a sea of diverse stimulation is a great way to increase the chances of new insights and approaches – and to attract other voices into the conversation.


Another collaborative tool of designers is brainstorming. The idea is to place a compact challenge in front of a diverse range of talent, and encourages everyone to think expansively. Brainstorms, which may only take an hour, are a way that designers bring fresh perspectives and rich fuel to problem-solving without crippling productivity of others.

Group involvement

Because corporate research will lead to products and services that need execution of details and ongoing support, having the entire team involved in decision-making and discussion creates more robust ideas, fewer design flaws and an easier product to support. A diverse team will also document the rationale for myriad design decisions, and represent these ideas all the way into production, preserving the original design intentions. For example, a key user feature may have driven a particular bit of research, resulting in a design feature that accents the technology and supports the users. A manufacturing team, without these insights, may eliminate features that appear superfluous or add even a small cost.

Sharing knowledge

A design firm that can leverage its experience (inside the strict boundaries of confidentiality) will create better ideas faster – and create more confidence with clients. Through the daily interactions (see collaborating radically, above) design thinkers already magnify their view of the world and the space of potential solutions.

One method of sharing is quite simple: spam everyone for help. Although this might seem totally unworkable at large scale, it can work in groups under 1000 people well, if people label their requests, so that people can listen and filter individually. Spamming works especially well for two types of simple questions: (1) ‘Can someone tell me how to …?’, and (2) ‘Can you share your experiences with …?’ (A savvy firm will collect responses and share them back, and then archive them for future access.)

Linking to people

Being human-centered, designers have a different view of large-scale knowledge sharing. A traditional view is to extract as much as possible from every contributor, and post the contents in a keyed database. While a straight-forward logical model of knowledge, this framework has limitations: knowledge is very difficult to ‘extract’ and codify (nuances matter) and to index sensibly. Another model is to create databases that archive existing works (lower threshold for creation), and use the data to link people to people (not people directly to the knowledge). When people connect, information exchange can focus on specifics and communicate details.

Reward sharing

Finally, design firms reward people who share as much as people who create (and often the best ‘sharers’ are creative leaders). The ‘currency’ of a designer is as much the following they build (for inspiration, advice, guidance) as the impact of their designs.

Exploring options and ideas early

Exploration is the hallmark of both design thinkers and scientists – but each has a different goal and a different mindset about exploration. A scientist takes pride in having the right hypothesis, and having the depth and rigor of craft to prove/disprove it clearly. (Mostly, proving an idea is favored.) Deep understanding is the goal. Perhaps a fundamental belief of researchers (and their organizations) is that the right people with the right support CAN understand the details, understand all the questions to ask and issues to constrain – and thus eventually reveal the Laws of Nature.

Don’t try to be right – in the beginning

Designers are accustomed to addressing problems that involve complex human behavior (versus Nature's Laws). With this situation, most designers understand that they CANNOT understand all the design issues by reflective study – humans are just too messy and emotional. To cope with this complexity, design thinkers realize intrinsically that they must explore ideas quickly in order to ferret out the questions they did not know to ask. They do this through tangible prototypes that are rapid, rough and ‘right’ to explore the primary open risks. Observing reactions to these tangible expressions is a powerful tool for revealing unexpected insights (and teaching humility about hypotheses), and gaining additional evidence quickly to improve decision making. A designer does not necessarily seek complete understanding, but rather wants to know just enough that they can make progress toward a solution. (Indeed, some solutions come without complete understanding.)


Many corporate labs have imported broad ideas of the research process from academic centers. Indeed, in the life sciences graduate and post-doctoral work is the norm. In academic settings, where the goal is demonstration of scholarship (and the procurement of the next grant), demonstration of individual ability is key to gaining recognition, status in the community (and funding). From this model, many corporate research labs recruit people from this environment and incentivize them in the same way. The thinking is that by hiring the best and brightest, one will have the best chance of success: if these folks cannot solve the problem, then who can? A firm might see itself gaining parity in the research landscape with this approach to staffing and incentives – personal labs, good competitive salaries and potential individual performance bonuses.

Creating a common goal

While the incentive is clear, current research suggests that purely financial incentives actually reduce productivity and innovation in cognitive tasks. 4 In addition, such incentives may encourage holding information tightly (in order to secure credit and prevent ‘scooping’). Further, there is the incentive to solve problems on one's own (to secure credit), which prevents reaching out for suggestions, general help and insights. Even if individuals wrestle problems to earth successfully, it is necessarily slower than leveraging existing knowledge and solutions quickly.

Design firms are much more similarly aligned to the goals of corporate research: create proprietary solutions efficiently, and bring them to market. Toward these goals, collaborative structures and incentives that emphasize team results are much more aligned to the actual objectives. If a design team can solve a challenge more quickly by leveraging other knowledge and enlisting aid (from any source), the profit margin increases. A primary incentive for designers is creating impact through the stories of the products they create – building their portfolio of impact through insight.

There is some evidence that teams can gain intense satisfaction – and muster incredible innovation – by addressing (and solving) challenges that are much larger than individual objectives. The Manhattan Project (1940s) and placing a man on the moon (1960s) are examples of such technical challenges that provoked innovative behaviors, selfless teamwork and spectacular scientific results at an astonishing pace.

Example: The development team for a new bottle and label format for cell culture media wanted to introduce several new labels (new colors, new information) into the quality system, greatly increasing the complexity of manufacturing and quality compliance. The key factor to efficient introduction was introducing the team to the new value this idea created, which engaged the imagination and engagement of the team, and produced innovative adaption of the new label format.


Inviting design thinking into corporate R&D certainly invites some reflection, and (from a design thinking perspective) some experiments to try. Here are some questions to consider:
  • What new models of multi-disciplinary teams could expand the perspective of R&D teams?

  • How might R&D teams make resources actively generative – and not simply reviewers or filters?

  • What are ways to create active and persistent sources of inspiration into R&D organizations?

  • What are new models of team spaces and collaborative workspaces?

  • What new incentive structures might align teams around larger goals and encourage sharing?

  • What type of knowledge does your organization want to manage and share?

To gauge progress, an organization might also consider measures like these:
  • Toward a particular goal, how many ideas did the team try? (More is better.)

  • How many sources of inspiration (outside the team) were tapped?

  • What is the average time between having an idea, and testing it with potential users?

  • How many ‘cycles’ of improvement did a team accomplish before executing an idea?

  • How many others are calling your team for insights and help?

A design thinker might challenge a team with these final thoughts: what things can you do in one week or less to test one of these ideas?


  1. Brown, T. (2008) Design thinking. Harvard Business Review June.Google Scholar
  2. Kelley, T. (2001) The Art of Innovation. New York, USA: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  3. Catmull, E. (2008) How Pixar Fosters collective creativity. Harvard Business Review September.Google Scholar
  4. Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, New York: Riverhead Books.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.PyxeraPalo AltoUnited States

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