While 2020 may go down in history as among the most challenging years, it’s been a surprisingly encouraging time for those working in experience and innovation. As the pandemic pushed stuck-at-home people into an almost entirely digital world, they had time to think about bigger questions–like social justice and community impact.

Without their usual in-person channels, companies scrambled into new realms of inventiveness, often accomplishing difficult tasks in days and weeks. Braced by this crash course in risk-taking, many are emerging with clear eyes and new energy.

Amid so many changes, we believe three trends will shape the months ahead. Smart companies are already using them as a springboard to a stronger purpose and uncommon growth.

Equity-Centered Design Goes Mainstream

The intersection of social responsibility and design isn’t new. But between Black Lives Matter protests and stark inequities, CX and innovation strategists spent much of 2020 asking each other hard questions. As a result, organizations are taking a closer at how their work perpetuates (and possibly amplifies) the deepening of privilege in a world full of unequal access, opportunities and outcomes.

That means enlarging definitions of human-centered design by expanding to community-focused thinking. And it requires stepping beyond the usual approach of designing for an individual, persona or archetype, making decisions based on empathy and inclusion.

We expect more companies to strive to design for fairness, especially as it becomes clear that doing so can lead to growth. Tapping into previously ignored markets, such as the disabled, non-English speakers and older consumers, are important avenues for new customers. Microsoft’s Seeing AI app, for instance, developed by a designer who is blind, recognizes facial expressions, reads documents and more for people with visual limitations. But by thinking beyond the “average” person, companies often find innovations that benefit everyone. Those include easier-to-navigate digital experiences, better audio services and more accessible product design.

Certainly, these innovations can prevent legal troubles down the line. But the best design thinking includes equity from the very beginning, not as a late-in-the-game modification from the compliance department.

Led by organizations like the Creative Reaction Lab and the Stanford DSchool, more practitioners recognize that good experiences must reflect diversity, equity and inclusion at every level. Often, that means including inspirational stories of people who have been shut out in the past. Fairness serves the triple bottom line—profits, people and the planet.

Digital Project Management Grows Up 

By now, businesses are well aware that digital projects need continuous management, led by a professional community of digital natives. But increasingly, companies are switching from a project management perspective to one of product management. The former are things a company makes. The latter are businesses that must be managed.

That means viewing them through the lens of finance, governed by profit and loss. Companies like Google have always done this. But increasingly, legacy brands, including CapitalOne, are waking up to the reality that these digital efforts are core to an organization’s value chain. This isn’t a fad. It’s a fundamental way of organizing. Rather than evaluating their work as engineering projects delivered on time and on budget, these professionals are becoming mini-CEOs.

Mature Enterprises Learn to be Young Again, Warming Up to the Reality of Profitable Waste

Google, with its well-publicized history of rewarding failure and encouraging moonshots, has gotten more than its share of attention, especially for Google X. But older companies know they have to become young again if they want to keep pace with digital natives. And more of these legacy brands–including Philips, Verizon 5G, Citi and Nestle–are owning up to the reality that meaningful innovation can’t be predicted in advance. When businesses take only small chances, they can only achieve small wins.

Businesses are aware of this, of course. A study from Partners In Leadership found that 84 percent of executives agree that their company’s future depends on innovation. But only 37 partners in their organization are willing to take the necessary risks.

These forward-looking companies are, in effect, learning to plan for breakage. This new realism means recognizing that every success may have required ten flops. They’re developing more practical ways to encourage risks. And most importantly, they are looking for new ways to measure success and reward innovation.

Those that don’t do this will have to be content with small incremental wins while bolder competitors make meaningful gains.

Final Thoughts

Consistent with the notion that times of great struggle can bring great changes, we are seeing long-standing constructs in design and innovation evolve in new directions. Diversity, equity and inclusion are increasingly becoming requisite elements of product and service experience design methodologies and outcomes. The way in which successful digital product creation is positioned and prioritized within an enterprise is not only connected to project delivery but to strategic accountability and tangible business results. And while ambiguity has long been something that designers and innovator leaders have needed to be comfortable with, they also need to be open to productive waste that leads to bigger and bolder outcomes in the end. The most successful companies will be those that embrace and apply these shifts in thoughtful and scalable ways.

To learn more about innovation-led transformation for your organization, contact us today.