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What is Innovation? What does “Human Centred Innovation” mean? Can we see a common, underlying pattern for the ways to lead an innovation journey? Can we use a kind of “model” for designing a solid innovation process?

These are the questions we’ll try to answer in this article, grounded on our personal experience in facilitating design and execution of innovation processes in different groups and institutions.

Innovating means embarking in a journey from a present to a new, better, future desired state – to make a journey we can rely on maps, guides, transportation and orientation tools…

Innovation means creating new value for somebody – as such, innovation is a process, made by people for other people. Human Centred Innovation (HCD), as defined by IDEO[i], simply puts humans at the very core of this value creating process – innovation is not driven merely by technology, ideology or profit generation, but is deeply dictated by satisfying human needs, it’s strongly anchored to a deep listening attitude along the entire process.

The mindset of “thinking as a designer” grounds IDEO’s HCD strategy, what they called Design Thinking (DT), defined by Tim Brown “…a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”  This can be visualized in the drawing below:

showing that DT aims to create a meaningful and accessible innovation, pursuing the simultaneous requirements of desirability, feasibility and viability.

Design, at its roots, was defined by Charles Eames[ii] as: “…a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose. Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.”

Adding the word “Thinking” to Design, means acknowledging it’s much more than drawing a functional object or system with style and grace – it’s a way of thinking, of arranging things to fulfil a (human) purpose. DT makes a strong statement on the attention we put on people, on their inner motivation to adopt a change.

We can imagine a highly flexible, constantly evolving system, allowing continuous occasions of interaction between stakeholders, creating meaningful opportunities for experimenting empathy and insight.

The DT process can be clearly seen as consisting of five clear, human centered steps:

First of all, we must EMPATHIZE with the people who should enjoy the value of our innovation effort – this means using “fresh” senses to listen and observe what they say and do, to gather objective insight on their needs and desires, without attempting any interpretation or judgement based on our biases (experience, mental models). Once we have understood enough to start DEFINING the object and target of the innovation challenge, we can work to IDEATE a bunch of solutions, some of which will be eligible to be brought forward. At this point we must go back to the people to validate what we have produced, and we do this by quickly building PROTOTYPES of our ideas. The nature of a prototype is being a real “quick & dirty” artefact, unpolished and unrefined, that can be “given” to stakeholders in order to interact with it and give us feedback. A prototype must be relevant and easy to understand, and must exploit whatever we’d like to elicit feedback about.

A prototype is something ephemeral, temporary…something we don’t get “stuck” on (because we fall in love of our ideas). The TEST phase is the gathering of the feedback on the prototype – this is another empathizing moment, and can eventually start a new “iteration” of the process, following the same steps described above, with the clear advantage of having gained a stronger understanding of the stakeholders’ perspective. Design solutions become tactics within a broader, human centered strategy.

Broadly speaking, DT is much more than a process for developing new products or solutions – it taps into the source of knowledge, the “pure” and deepest experiential way of learning. We could dare saying that the method making science progress is a kind of DT process, where nature is the stakeholder we observe and whose feedback we are looking for…

Whenever we design[iii] something new for somebody (a product, a service, a workshop, an explanation, a solution, a policy…) we should try to follow the DT process to create meaning and value for others.

DT can be seen as a strongly optimistic framework – people can be confident in experimenting, as they believe having the power of discovering unmet needs and creating new ideas with a positive impact.

It comes as no surprise that the DT process has a lot to share with more philosophical cognitive framings, developed to understand in depth how successful innovation works, especially how leadership can promote and drive deep change, transforming self and organisations.

At the end of the ’90 Otto Scharmer and Joseph Jaworski, working on a global Leadership project promoted by Peter Senge, decided to interview a group of more than 150 notable and successful international leaders, in order to discover the shared elements of their paths to shape the future.

In a nutshell, Otto and his co-workers wanted to capture the essence of these people’s leadership journeys to deeply innovate themselves, their working groups and their environment – they were interested in gaining an insight not only on what and how these leaders did, but also on “from where” they did it.

A vast majority of the interviewed leaders was talking about very special moments in which they were able to operate from an inner space of deep personal or shared “presence”, realizing the future was “emerging” as they were able to let something go and let something else in.

The researchers started seeing a fil rouge in the collection of informative stories, that ultimately led them to discover an underlying thought and action structure –they visually described this as a U-shaped curve, representing the journey as an “evolutionary” movement from top left down to a “minimum” and then up right from this point.

They called this social methodology “Theory U[iv].

The associations with natural patterns and the cultural implications are immense: the theory not only does explain and connect existing “facts”, but it’s also capable of “predicting” outcomes when applied to similar conditions. It also provides leadership the tools to collect the right set of players (in terms of value chain) and a social technology that allows a multi-stakeholder gathering to shift from debating to co-creating the future.

This is why Theory U quickly became a sort of “compass” for any leadership journey, making the U process worthy a closer look.

Along the path you can highlight seven steps or phases, each continuously transforming into the following. We start with the DOWNLOADING phase: we collect data and information in a somehow “passive” way, our mental models dominate the process – we see things from the past and through the past. Moving down the U, we put our mental models aside and suspend our habitual ways of seeing – as we are able to pay attention to our attention, we can look at the system we want to learn about and change with open mind and heart, we can “sense” it, reaching out its borders – in this “place” we can create generative conversations with others.

At the bottom of the U we are “present” to ourselves and to others, we finally have let something go and we can “connect” to our inner source of will, to let the emerging future in – this has been described by many change makers as a moment of “stillness” where we can contemplate what we truly want to make happen, where a team finally perceive a shared vision of what they want to emerge…

Reaching the bottom of the U gives us the energy boost for climbing the right side of the U, to “act in an instant” and start making after learning and reflecting. This means CRYSTALLIZING a clear vision and a deep intention of change, and being able of immediately moving to the next step, PROTOTYPING: connecting Hand (in the sense of making) with Mind and Heart, we can transform the vision and intention into something we can challenge, we can build a rough, real model to elicit feedback from the system’s stakeholders.

Through the U journey we stop looking at the system from the past and move toward creating an actionable change that let the future emerge – this is what we call the PERFORMING phase.

But we cannot stop here – it goes without saying that the U process (as any innovation process) has, by definition, no ending. As we change the system, we should consider how it reacts, the new challenges we face, the new mental models we enact…in other words we should start gathering data to initiate a new U journey…

The seven phases of the U journey must be seen as a whole, we cannot skip any of them without compromising the process – being able to go through all of them describes the core competencies of Leadership.

As we mentioned before, the power of the U journey is its straightforward extension to a collective dimension – the methodologies (the “vehicles”) to move along the U are slightly different – now the focus is co-creating (together, collectively, as a team) the emerging future, and the human interactions are at the core.

In our experience of facilitating groups to develop healthy and sustainable innovation paths, Theory U and Design Thinking have been of extraordinary value. We apply different group facilitation methods to go through the U process (eg. U-Journaling, Case Clinics, 3D System Sculpting, Brainstorming, Sensing Journeys/Stakeholder Interviews)[v]. Recently, being one of the authors LEGO®SERIOUS PLAY® Certified Facilitator[vi], we have experimented with great success the use of LEGO® bricks in all the moments requiring metaphor building (the power of mind-hand connection!)[vii].

This is why we strongly believe Theory U is an incredible tool for facilitators – even a short (1 day) workshop will ignite an outstanding change of perspective, as the group experiments and lives how to make deep change happen, how we can co-create something meaningful, letting the Future emerge

Marco Ossani, Gian Carlo Manzoni

[i] IDEO, the leading global innovation company founded by the Kelley Brothers. See

[ii] Charles Eames, iconic American designer, creator, with his wife Ray, of buildings, furniture and cult objects, including the short movie “Powers of Ten”. See

[iii] See Tim Brown “Change By Design” Harper Collins (2009)

[iv] See C. Otto Scharmer “Theory U – Leading from the Future as It Emerges” Berrett-Koheler (2009)

[v] See, for examples and resources, the “Tools” section of– for more on the research/empathy phases (interviews and observation practices) see the IDEO “Human Centered Design Toolkit” IDEO (2011)

[vi] Marco Ossani, by the Association of Master Trainers in the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Method,

[vii] See Per Kristiansen & Robert Rasmussen “Building a Better Business using the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Method” Wiley (2014)