thought leadership article #1

This thought leadership piece was published in the book “Transforming Airlines: A Flight Plan For Navigating Structural Changes” by Nawal K. Taneja in 2020

We don't fly planes, we fly people

by Simone van Neerven, Head of Innovation at Vueling Airlines, and Adam Walker, Strategic Service Design Lead at Vueling Airlines

Today, large corporations face a variety of challenges, many of which threaten their very existence. They can no longer assume that their customers of today will be their customers of tomorrow, or that their products and services will remain relevant and in demand for the months, years and decades to come.

Innovation should no longer be a ‘nice-to-have’ for companies. It is essential to stay relevant today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and you can only do this by innovating. At Vueling, innovation means having your head in the clouds while keeping your feet on the ground at the same time. However, this is easier said than done. McKinsey’s Three Horizons Model of innovation (with a small twist) enables Vueling’s innovation team to work on the large, disruptive yet rapidly approaching horizon 3 visions while at the same time solving the smaller, incremental horizon 1 pains of today.

Being in close contact with your customers when designing and improving products and services is also an essential element to the innovation process. Human-centered design (HCD) enables innovation teams to do just this. The variety of HCD tools and methodologies help to bridge the gaps between the three horizons. Using a human-centered approach to innovation allows teams to understand the current experience, its pain points and opportunities for improvement, as well as the customers expected future experiences. It is a great way to go from talking about customer experience to making it tangible.

Yet nothing will change if the corporate culture is not supportive towards innovation. Employees must be able to share their ideas freely, collaborate with others and feel safe to experiment and fail. Leaders need to know how to support and drive this innovative mindset. And innovation teams can play an excellent role to facilitate this across the entire organization.

Demystifying innovation: have your head in the clouds, and keep your feet on the ground

Innovation has become one of the todays top buzzwords. There are so many different definitions and approaches to innovation. The basic imperative is no longer to just innovate to stay ahead. Instead, you have to innovate to survive. Often incremental innovation is separated from disruptive innovation. However, they are strongly correlated. A good definition of innovation is “having your head in the clouds while keeping your feet on the ground at the same time”. Having your head in the clouds suggests that you should be on the lookout for what could be happening tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. While keeping your feet on the ground means you must also remember to stay relevant today.  

Companies are built, run and led by people. They are the key to success. Today, a lot of innovation that takes place within large organizations is aimed at the big disruptions. This can be pretty daunting and often difficult for many employees to comprehend. However, incremental innovation is just as important. When you keep your feet on the ground, it is key to include your employees in the innovation journey. They are closest to and know more about the current problems of the company than anyone else. They often have a lot of good ideas around how to solve these problems having experienced them firsthand. By working together to solve these pains you can drive bottom up innovation, which in turn leads to a higher employee engagement. When employees are engaged, they have more ideas, are eager to help solve further problems and so continues the circle of engagement. 

This is an upward, continuous improvement cycle that ensures a flexible attitude towards change and stimulates a growth mindset, all essential for an innovative DNA within a company.

A personalized and contextualized approach to innovation

Since there are so many different ways to innovate, there is no one size fits all approach. Every industry has its own challenges and maturity level. Even within companies, teams and departments can differ. When it comes to innovation, the best strategy is to personalize and contextualize the innovation approach, fit it to the current needs of the company and offer a roadmap that demonstrates how the company can stay relevant today and in the future.

A modular approach to innovation seems to be quite effective. There are some general frameworks that can be extremely useful to give structure to the innovation roadmap and with some small adjustments, they can fit into almost any context. One of the most powerful examples is McKinsey’s three horizon’s framework:

  • Horizon 1 is what is happening from now until the coming years (“today”). It’s here that you identify the biggest pains of the company while exploring new technology to help solve them. This is where you have your feet are on the ground. By solving current pains that the business feels, it also leads to higher levels of trust towards innovation. Also, sometimes solutions can end up spinning off into new, innovative business models.
  • Horizon 2 is what will happen in a few of years from now (“tomorrow”). By envisioning the future of key topics in a compelling way and with a realistic timeframe of 5 years from now, it gets people pulling in the same direction. Also, a backlog of new ideas and concepts that can be worked on today start to be produced. This makes it easier to test and judge ideas in the early stages, and helps to avoid re-working concepts later on, when adjustments are increasingly costly. Horizon 2 bridges the distant future and the here and now.
  • Horizon 3 is what will happen in the distant future, the large-scale disruptions (“day after tomorrow”). This is where you need to have your head in the clouds. By asking provocative questions, such as “Will there still be short haul airlines in ten years from now?”, you keep the organization sharp in terms of possible upcoming disruptions. Working in scenarios helps to explore what could happen in the future and what the possible impact on the business could be. 
    Often horizon 3 is being pushed out since it feels so far away. However, these days disruptions can come far quicker than people may predict. This is why it is so important to keep working on horizon 2 and 3 alongside horizon 1.

To make this framework more practical, pillars of key business aspects can be added to create a matrix. In the example below (figure 1) the pillars represent customer experience, employee experience, operational excellence and new business. But these pillars can be adjusted to any situation. The further you go towards the future, the more these topics will blend.

The matrix can be used to plot initiatives, which is an excellent way to visualize the innovation portfolio and show the correlation between initiatives within the different horizons. It helps to put these initiatives into a logical context, understandable for everyone. Obviously, the approach per horizon can differ, which is shown within figure 2.

Figure 1: The three horizons combined with key business pillars

Figure 2: The three horizons matrix, including the different approaches per horizon

Human-centered design in the heart of the innovation strategy

Every business is a people’s business. Today, customers are more important than ever. In the airline industry, traditionally a very operational driven industry, there is a shift towards customer centricity. The experience of the customer is being considered at a much earlier stage. So much so that airlines are now reframing their purpose; “We don’t fly planes, we fly people”. By putting human-centered design at the heart of an airline’s innovation strategy, a true customer centric approach is far more likely. This is more than just talking about how to provide the best customer experience, this is designing and implementing it.  

Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving. It’s a process that starts with the individuals you are designing for and ends in new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. It is not about a shallow customer understanding, but more about building a deep empathy with the people you are designing for. You do this by immersing yourself in their lives. In time this allows you to understand their needs more deeply. 

A good design approach allows strategies to be bold, expansive, and not too costly to implement. By costly, we don’t just mean the financial impact, but also in terms of political, ecological, and environmental impact. A human-centered design approach can be both simple and sophisticated, this leads to the creation of designs that are free of gaps and conflicts, hidden costs and risks, false choices and compromises.

Human-centered design combines creativity and imagination with critical reasoning and counterintuitive steps. It consists of three phases:

  • In the inspiration phase you will learn directly from the people you are designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs.
  • In the ideation phase you will make sense of what you have learnt, identify opportunities for improvement that you can design and prototype possible solutions.
  • In the implementation phase you will bring your solution to life and eventually, to market. You will know that your solution will be a success as you keep the very people you are looking to serve at the heart of the process.

Figure 3: Hierarchy of design approaches

Falling in love with a problem, not a solution

Simply described, human-centered design means focusing on the person and the experience. The basic rule is that you can start looking for improvements only when you know what the pain really is. This is also the reason why some problems have been around for such a long time. Without truly understanding the problem, there will never be a solution that’s good enough to solve it.

You need to start loving your problems. It’s only when you do this that you become determined to find the right solution. You must also be able to kill your own darlings if they are not actually solving the problem. However, this should not stop you from finding another way to solve the problem. The process requires resilience, persistence and continual iteration.

One mistake that is often made, is when companies put too much focus on either the design or the technology that delivers a solution. Too often the technological wow factor or the beauty of a design dominates. Bad implementation of technology cannot be solved by good design alone. Cool technology that is misunderstood due to poor design will also fail. The balance between the two should be just right. For example, understanding the limitations of what a machine can handle and knowing when humans should be brought in to aid in the delivery of the service can make all the difference.

Furthermore, technology will only deliver efficient solutions for parts of the process and customer journey. In order to make the customer’s journey as coherent and consistent as possible, it is key to develop an overarching vision on how and where technology fits into the overall process.

Only by understanding the experi­ence of customers over time across all aspects of your service can you deliver a truly customer centric experience. This information is often captured within a journey map or a service blueprint. Things that are considered superfluous to core functionality, yet are very important from a user perspective, such as providing customer service can sometimes be ignored or haphazardly addressed further down the design and implementation process. Service designers are experts in understanding customer experience across all aspects of a service over time. They can help when a company is looking to design and orchestrate a service from a strategic point of view with the end goal of ensuring better customer experiences.

Not developing solutions for your users, but with your users

In the first phase of a human-centered design approach, a personal connection with the people – or users – for whom a solution is being developed, is established via qualitative research. However, it does not stop there. During the entire process of finding and solving the pains, possible solutions are tested with people, sometimes in quick-and-dirty ways. During the development of a first prototype or proof of concepts, there is constant feedback loop with your users to ensure the solution works well, is easy to understand and enjoyable.

Once the solution has to be brought to life and eventually to market, it will more than likely be successful. This is partly due to the fact that the very people that are being served have been put in the heart of the design process.

What distinguishes human-centered design from other problem-solving approaches is its obsessive focus on understanding the perspective of the person who experiences a service or product. It reveals their needs, the problems they face and whether the solution that has been designed for them is being delivered effectively. It’s most potent as a strategic process when the very people are working for, your customers, become a constant part of the design process whenever possible. 

A different way of working is not easy for everyone

The service designers at Vueling’s innovation lab are in continuous dialogue with travellers to gain an ever deeper and broader understanding of the psyche. You learn about things like: How do people’s expectations regarding travel companies change over time? What are the main factors impacting customer experience? And when is ‘good’, good enough? These insights are blended with actual challenges of the business, with market trends, and with emerging technologies. We experiment, find new opportunities and execute them.

For employees that are accustomed to being told to be rational and objective, such methods can seem subjective and overly personal. Of course, businesses want to understand their customers – but a design-thinking approach creates connections with customers that can sometimes feel uncomfortably emotive and even overwhelming for many who are not used to working with such methodologies.

Design-thinking approaches call on employees to repeatedly experience something they have historically tried to avoid: failure. The iterative prototyping and testing involved in these methods work best when they produce lots of negative results – outcomes that show what doesn’t work. But piling up seemingly unsuccessful outcomes is uncomfortable for many. It also generates ideas that can be seen as crazy, ideas that will never be accepted and this also make some people uncomfortable.   

Another potentially unsettling aspect of design-thinking methods is their reliance on divergent thinking. They ask employees to not race to the finish line or converge on an answer as quickly as possible. Instead, it asks people to expand on the number of options – to go sideways for a while rather than forward. That can be difficult for people accustomed to valuing a clear direction, cost savings, efficiency, and so on. It can feel like “spinning wheels” – which in some ways, it is.

To employees this divergent thinking might feel controversial to agile, another current big trend in many companies. With the fast pace of technological change and increasing prevalence of complex projects, many organizations are moving towards more agile work environments, methodologies and practices, with a lot of focus on short term delivery.

Agile and human-centered design are not competitive approaches. They can be highly complementary if applied well. In the prototype and proof of concept phase, lots of experimentation and quick testing with users is carried out. Once the results are satisfying, the deployment of the solutions needs to be as agile as possible. Also, one element of agile working is staying highly engaged with the customer throughout the process instead of waiting to the end to give them a final product, which is fully aligned with the human-centered design philosophy.

So, it requires an organization that is optimized for fast, high-quality execution. The speed of innovation depends on the agility of your organization. The quality of innovation depends on the customer centricity of your culture.

An “I win, you lose” attitude will get you nowhere

Innovation really thrives when there is an ecosystem of players that all collaborate. There is the creation of a network based on in-depth relationships with customers and employees, as well as partners such as other corporates, startups and governments. This all starts with a change from the ‘I win, you lose’ mindset towards one that asks, ‘how can we create win-win solutions by using the strengths of all parties?’.

Design thinking tools and processes (such as design sprints) can help to facilitate collaboration between many different stakeholders, including end users. During these sessions, a multidisciplinary team works on solving a shared problem. There is an open flow of data and information, accessible to everyone. Each participant brings their own perspective, leading to an overall, shared view of the problem. People love to share their ideas and help to make something happen. Collaboration becomes the preferred and natural way of working. They also generate an attitude within people that they hopefully bring back to their daily job and working environment after the session. It will have a positive impact and step by step, the company culture changes to a more collaborative one, where silos are being teared down.

Human-centered design requires understanding and open-minded leaders

Leaders play a crucial role in creating the right environment for their employees. They need to have a higher-order perspective to deliver the outcomes users demand and the impact the system deserves. These leaders who can move people with a compelling vision for an alternative state of affairs. Leaders who dare to do this will admit that they don’t have all of the answers, but they can take people along on a joint exploration to find the right path. These types of leaders stay away from the winning and losing mentality and strive for the betterment of all.

People who find themselves in positions of leadership must help people to resist the urge to converge quickly on a single solution. To goal-oriented people, divergent thinking can seem to generate unnecessary ambiguity about where a project is heading. Quite often impatience is a key emotion that needs to be managed well during in this phase. Leaders need to help those people deal with their insecurities and worries by aiding them in their understanding of the process. Employees who are unfamiliar with design thinking need the guidance and support of leaders to navigate the unfamiliar landscape and productively channel their reactions to the approach.

There is a large amount of evidence out there that shows senior executives almost unanimously say that people and corporate culture are the two most important drivers of innovation. Though almost every organization struggles with it. The three foundations of innovation are trust, willingness to experiment and take risks and openness to new ideas.

Leaders need to push employees to open up but also be supportive about how the they feel afterwards. They need to help their employees find that positive path and not act defensively when confronted with deficiencies in existing practices. They need to frame the findings as opportunities for redesign and improvement rather than as performance problems.  

No more command and control

Since new ideas seem to spur more new ideas, networks generate a cycle of innovation. Furthermore, effective networks allow people with different kinds of knowledge and ways of tackling problems to cross-fertilize ideas. By focusing on getting the most from innovation networks, leaders can capture more value from existing resources, without launching a large-scale change-management program. But with the inclusion of networks comes the letting go of a ‘command and control’ mindset.

Command and control lead to bureaucracy, hierarchy, and fear. Attributes that inhibit innovation. People who lead must understand that their team is not working for them, but that they are there to work for the team. They should act as ‘roadblock busters’ when problems arise, in order to keep the team going and not get stuck. Lead the team with a ‘northstar’ and involve them in the definition of the path towards it. Trust them, they are capable of coming up with great ideas. Too much control and you will kill all creativity, it makes people reactive and highly dependent on the leader which will slow down the entire team.

An innovation team as the API for innovation

An innovation team can be the perfect place to develop the human-centered design capability. When positioned well, they have a neutral place in the organization and act objectively. They can create a space where innovation fosters, connecting and bringing the right people together to collaborate on key topics of the business.  

With the right mix of skills in the innovation team, they can develop prototypes and proof of concepts in a very short timeframe. They can test every assumption in real life with customers through a process of repeated prototyping and conceptualizing. This will provide insights into how best to implement the most appropriate solutions and adapt the technology meet the needs of people, not the other way around. The process of continuous innovation will also deliver results on the viability and feasibility, making alignment and agreement with the networked stakeholder groups even easier.

They lead by example. With ongoing research, they immerse themselves in understanding problems, before looking to design appropriate solutions. “Love the problem, not the solution”, as the saying goes. Far too often we fall in love with the solution. The team must have the guts to let go their ego’s and kill their own darlings if they fail to solve the pain. Falling in love with the problem drives creativity, persistence and resilience.

Lastly, when driving innovation in a corporate setting there will be a lot of “it cannot be done”. To counteract this, you need to find the right balance between ‘just do it and ask permission later on’ versus complying with corporate rules and structures. These are the structures that do not always support fast, agile ways of working but they do keep the peace within the organization. 

Each innovation team needs a touch of rebelliousness!

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