Purposeful Innovation Fitness as a Vehicle to Unlock Opportunities in Crises

Authors: Pauliina Mattila, Tiina Tuulos, Floris Van der Marel 

As practitioners and explorers of creative problem-solving and professional capability, we coach students and professionals in adopting components of design thinking on a day to day basis at Design Factory Melbourne and Aalto Design Factory. Additionally, we are all candidates of a joint PhD program between Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and Aalto University in Finland. Our strong interest to combine theory and practice supports us in creating new perspectives to creative problem-solving and future-readiness of professionals and organisations with a strong value-based approach. The Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis course was a platform for us to examine, critique and explore capabilities for change, components of crisis and their impact, as well as the various types of crises professionals and society face. In this article, we outline our quest to explore how design approach can be enhanced by incorporating more elements of resilience and genuine reflection, to support professionals to imagine and create futures that are better for themselves, their organisations, and society at large. 

Keith Haring


“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside,
the end is near.” 
Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric

With increased levels of ambiguity and uncertainty, many organisations aim to stay relevant and ahead of the game, realising a key competitive advantage and source for resilience lies in human potential (Martin 2010, World Economic Forum 2017). The recent health crisis, the global Covid-19 pandemic, triggered an economic crisis, and simultaneously brought ongoing systemic crises of social injustice and environmental decline to the surface, all contributing to an accelerated pace of change. The need for future skills, capabilities and frameworks to navigate through change has been gaining traction for some time, and it is no wonder that interest is increasing, both in academia and business contexts, to explore topics such as adaptiveness, resilience, leadership, and purpose (see for example Alphabeta 2018, Deloitte 2015, Hamel and Zanini 2020, Moldoveanu and Narayandas 2019, Scoblic 2020, World Economic Forum 2018).

Approaches derived from the field of product design, such as design thinking, have been popularised in a business context to be agile, to bring in a user or human-centred perspective, and to create more desirable products, systems and services and processes to solve wicked problems (Buchanan 1992, Dorst 2011). For these approaches to be valuable in supporting organisations to respond adequately to changing circumstances, we feel there is a need, especially during crisis situations, for a more heuristic approach, complementing creative problem-solving (in our project, we will use the term ‘creative problem solving’ as a generic term to refer to design-driven processes such as design thinking) with resilience and meaningful reflective action. This should enhance organisational fitness and unlock opportunities that change and crises provide.

This quest to better support organisations in being resilient and push for meaningful, sustainable transformations during crises is reflected in the team members’ previous course blog posts. In Tiina Tuulos’s (2020) ‘When are we recovered?’ post, she reflected on recovery from crisis and how crisis preparedness and existing organisational capacity to deal with uncertainty and challenges have an influence on how a crisis impacts in the future. Building on this, Tiina unpacked the challenge of designing for the “new normal” in workplaces and the risk of not capitalising on the opportunity that the crisis provides. She argued that “the crisis provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the before and reassess what was left behind (Lee, 2016). Thus, how might we enable more participatory approaches for recovery, to ensure the future we are creating is answering the human and societal needs?”. Inspired by Marko Korhonen’s lecture, Floris van der Marel (2020) earlier claimed in his post ‘We need Humanity-Centred Research and Design in Crisis’, “who is impacted and how, varies. Whether a person or community is at risk, is dependent on the type of hazard, their exposure and vulnerability, as well as their capacity to cope (Korhonen 2020). In every crisis, some people are hit harder than others, with underlying reasons not always being clear.” In Pauliina Mattila’s PhD research, she aims to identify links between resilience and diversity on an ecosystem level. Although disturbances to the system are inherent, the system composition determines how well it bounces back.

With this scope in mind, in this project plan, we will unpack our thinking and outline our idea of developing a prototype of a next generation of design thinking practice for organisations. We want to improve capability in organisations so that professionals can be creative, resilient with high levels of self-determination and agency while acknowledging their own responsibility for creating a sustainable, more socially just world. We see this capability as Purposeful Innovation Fitness, which combines elements from multiple approaches including creative problem-solving, resilience, sustainability and social justice. This more integrative approach we believe will be more effective as it is more aligned with the increasingly changing complex environment we operate in. Since we are all design practitioners, with backgrounds in either design, business or engineering, primarily our efforts in the project will go to exploring and creating resilience and critical reflection content. The aim is to define a transferable set of tools and skills, which could be learned and experienced in various forms.

1 Crises change our modus operandi

1.1 From paralysis to transformation opportunity

Crises can be defined as perceptions of a situation that cause emotional imbalance or turmoil, where typical toolkits and coping mechanisms no longer are sufficient to cope and deal with the situation. When faced with a crisis that poses a threat to the status quo, individuals, organisations and systems may become paralysed due to the ambiguity, anxiety and uncertainty. Crises set a stage for something unknown in the present and future, and uncertainty rises from “our inability to compare the present to anything we’ve previously experienced” (Scoblic 2020:40). Trauma or crisis can disrupt the core belief systems and challenge assumptions, causing anxiety and repetitive thinking (Tedeschi 2020). In addition, crises often create constraints, causing organisations to go into a survival mode, focussing only on responding to immediate threats instead of opportunities and future strategies (Scoblic 2020). 

“There are no futurists in foxholes.”
J. Peter Scoblic (2020)

However, crises can provide an opportunity for transformation and “usher in change that will be of value” (Tedeschi 2020:128). Psychologists call this phenomenon posttraumatic growth, the positive outcomes of crisis and stress for individuals and organisations (Tedeschi 2020). This growth through negative experiences includes “a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth” (Tedeschi 2020:128). Crises thus can be catalysts for positive change, and sustaining a positive crisis mindset in a sustainable way is something many leaders and organisations are prompted to consider during and in the aftermath of the recent pandemic (We Are Unity 2020). 

1.2 Creativity under crisis constraints: opportunities and necessities 

Overall, crises do not necessarily slow down innovation and the opportunities seized may become a competitive advantage as the economy recovers (Hansen and Nybakk 2018). Crises usually have an adverse impact due to the sudden emergence of new constraints, however, constraints may also spur creativity and innovation. Professionals and organisations who are creatively capable, are able to move further and adapt to changing environments by using constraints to their advantage. Constraints provide necessary boundaries for creativity (Caniëls and Rietzschel 2015), and create opportunities for expansion and growth, and ultimately strengthen resilience for the future. Thus, creativity in organisations is much called for, and there is a need for “institutionalization of imagination” for organisations to be capable of building strategic foresight and navigate the unknown (Scoblic 2020). 

“Creativity constraints are explicit or tacit factors governing what the creative agent/s must, should, can, and cannot do; and what the creative output must, should, can, and cannot be.” 
Balder Onarheim and Michael Mose Biskjær (2013)

Archibugi et al. (2013a) found that during and in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis the two groups that were the most proactive were the actors with strong involvement in innovation activities prior to the crisis, as well as recently-founded fast-growing ventures. During a decline, such as the global financial crisis, surviving the event through for example cutting costs and risks may be more attractive than proceeding with proactive innovation activities (Hansen and Nybakk 2018), however plausible combination would be to continue innovation investments during and post-crisis (Archibugi et al. 2013a, Srinivasan et al. 2005, Colombo et al. 2016), while simultaneously working with the necessary survival responses. McKinley et al. (2014) note that when the problem at hand is controllable with the added-on urgency to react, managers are willing to take the risk of innovation and at best, turn the organisation around through innovation as a response to the episode causing an organisational decline. 

1.3 Resilience as a prerequisite for meaningful transformations

Resilience is a widely researched area under multiple domains, traversing from psychology, adolescence, to ecology, organisations and societies. Given our scope in the project, we approach resilience from the extensive literature in the organisational context. Two broad, partially overlapping streams of research can be identified in how organisations respond to crises: crisis management and organisational resilience. Crisis management is concerned with the actors’ way of “minimizing the impact of an unexpected event in the life of an organization” (Spillan and Hough 2003:399) to ensure the survival and restore normal functioning of the organisation as the situation passes (Williams et al. 2017). Survival actions and crisis management are crucial to getting by the immediate danger of an unexpected crisis situation and in the best case accumulate key learnings to build resilience for the future challenges. Crisis situations also provide new opportunities for companies, innovation ecosystems and societies for exploration and development, for example as a result of economic crisis (Archibugi et al. 2013a) or natural disasters (Monllor and Altay 2016). As the market and business environment normalise, new structural changes in the supply-demand (Archibugi et al. 2013b) or in network structures might have taken place and may present new opportunities for creative proactive companies to tap into. 

Resilience, in turn, looks into prior-to-crisis accumulated resources deployed during and after crises to return their business to a near-normal state and be equipped for future adversity (Williams et al 2017). Research on organisational resilience is rather fragmented and remains a complex construct (Duchek 2019), however, a consensus is emerging towards resilience being an ongoing process utilising a set of skills pre-, during and post-crisis. Dervitsiotis’s (2003) definition sheds further light on our understanding of resilience and our motivation to find ways to provide resilience ‘tools’ as ongoing. He discusses organisational resilience as business landscape fitness. Organisations’ resilience is the fit between their competitive environment and their performance at a specific point in time. As a result, Dervitsiotis (2003) argues that business excellence is single-loop learning and that double-loop learning is required, “in which there must be a search for different more fundamental goals […] in view of the inadequacy of the ones presently taken for granted and the prospect of decline or collapse” (Dervitsiotis 2003:253).

Resilience is a powerful tool, as being able to adapt and evolve as a professional, or as an organisation, doesn’t just enable them to respond adequately to a current situation, but builds the confidence they can do so in the future. This is important, as nudges from external crises and internal values and purpose provide opportunities for meaningful transformation, as organisations will be better able and willing to face uncertainty, as they know they are capable of responding to unknown challenges effectively. 

1.4 Crises can cause other crises to surface

One crisis can be a catalyst to accelerate and reveal other crises hidden from the public, surfacing other operational, systemic, societal or environmental issues, which may further support a more profound transformational change. Indeed, we have seen the rise of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, which brought the long-term systemic human inequality crisis to the surface. Furthermore, the global environmental issues have frequently been discussed in conjunction with the Covid-19 pandemic as it has halted people’s movements and industry (Kingham 2020, Simon 2020). These examples add to the point that crises are closely interlinked and demand a comprehensive approach. Indeed, a recent letter from the world-leading scientists argues “that the climate and ecological emergency can only be addressed by tackling the underlying “social and racial injustices and oppression that have laid the foundations of our modern world” (in Taylor 2020). Earlier in the course, Floris van der Marel (2020) argued in ‘We need Humanity-Centred Research and Design in Crisis’, “that due to deeply rooted systemic differences in society, not everybody can afford to stay at home, not everybody can stand up for their own safety at work, and not everybody has access to healthcare. The disease may be equal, but the risk of contracting it, suffering from it, or even dying, is not. Indeed, it reminds us more that we are not all equal, as the already marginalized suffer more. Human rights groups have been working hard to change society and the way we treat each other, and now, in this time of crisis and tragedy, there is an opportunity.” Additionally, “designers and researchers have a responsibility to contribute to creating a better world, as they are “shapers of society” (Tromp et al. 2011:19). In times of crisis, the necessity to act responsibly is amplified, as groups of people are in distress. Designers are not here to ‘save the day’ though; they should work closely together with people who have local knowledge and relevant experience to tackle the most pressing issues.”

Indeed, organisations who are recovering from a crisis and reinventing their processes and practices after a crisis should not just aim to maintain the status quo, but also harness the opportunity to reflect on value-based questions and take the responsibility towards creating positive societal and environmental impact. Crises provide opportunities for organisations to consider existential questions such as “Are we conducting our business ethically? […] Should we do something else with our valuable time and resources? […] What is the primary motive for our ongoing existence?” (Tedeschi 2020:131). This, in turn, challenges organisations, similar to individuals after crisis or trauma, to align their actions more with their identity and purpose.

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware,
we cannot help but change.”
Sheryl Sandberg (2013)

2 Limitations of and opportunities for creative problem solving

2.1 The popularisation of creative problem solving

Derived from the field of industrial design, design thinking describes a team-based, multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving to support people to push for innovation in their field (Camacho and Kelly 2016, Glen et al. 2015). Creative problem-solving uses elements of Design Thinking, which describes the general outlines of creative processes that have been around for centuries (Glen et al. 2015). The popularity of Design Thinking made many design agencies decide to develop toolkits, sharing their way of designing, presenting creative approaches as usable and something for easy adoption, following a few steps and techniques. Certainly, these toolkits have their merits in spreading design thinking expertise wider beyond the design discipline, however, at times they may fall short by being “incomplete”, “non-exclusive” and “at different levels of granularity” (Badke-Schaub et al. 2010:44). We consider design-based approaches not just to be activities intended to push for innovation. Instead, we agree with Camacho and Kelly (2016) they are journeys of creativity incorporating conscious reflective practices in which everything is done with intention. 

Furthermore, creative problem-solving skills primarily focuses on various outputs and places little consideration of how practising this approach fundamentally changes one’s way of working. Indeed, it is not sufficient just to design for the outcome, but also for the intervention and action of change (Brown and Martin 2016). This is tied to the important action of change agency and issue selling in organisations, where change and action can be driven from any level in the organisation. Floris van der Marel (2020) reported in his post ‘We need Humanity-Centred Research and Design in Crisis’ that in the provided course readings few design responses to the crisis “explicitly mention existing crises already ongoing before the pandemic hit. Dalsgaard (2020) addresses the need to think about “what “better” means, to whom and in which context”, however, does not go so far as framing the crisis as an opportunity to address systemic issues, causing some people to hurt more from this crisis than others.” Indeed, designers are arguably too busy with what is viable, feasible and desirable, and not with what is ethical, or urgently needed, argued by Alexandra Almond’s June 2020 Medium post ‘Designers, we need to talk about Desirable, Viable, Feasible’. Floris, in the previously mentioned post, ended with a statement inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s manifesto ‘The world after coronavirus’, that as “human-centred researchers and designers, we owe it to humanity to not just think about briefs from our clients or governing agencies or even the immediate threat, but what kind of world we are shaping through our creations.” 

2.2 A shift towards transformations

Indeed, recently many prominent academics in the field of design have called for reconfiguring how we design together, and for a move away from designing tangible outcomes, and towards transformations in communities. To make design tools and attitudes stick, it is important they relate to what professionals find genuinely important so that they are passionate about pursuing them. Reflecting on values, positionality, and other crises in the world, provides an opportunity to link this way of problem-solving to a specific cause, a purpose people genuinely care about, beyond the professional context. This could light a fire in professionals and organisations to push for increasing their agency and resilience as they advance the role of design while working towards a more environmentally and socially just world in which everybody is free to be and do what they have reason to value. The approach in our project reflects this thinking as we aim to build on existing design approaches so that professionals and organisations can enhance their creative capability and resilience by taking a value-driven approach. 

Alongside with organisations tapping into more professional capability building to be equipped for the changing environment, we see the role of design being elevated in many organisations (Micheli et al. 2018) as the complex problems organisations are facing demand for more creative thinking and new ways of working (Amabile et al. 2002, Buchanan 1992). Design approaches and strategic integration of design-inspired methods and practices have been found to positively contribute to innovation and company performance (Micheli et al., 2018) and the most important element in driving organisational innovation is individual creativity (Amabile, 1988). By tapping into this demand, we as design practitioners can contribute to creating a better world, by adding components of resilience, critical reflection and value-driven decision-making to existing methods and tools. This way professionals and organisations can be more equipped to transform their ways of working towards being more resilient, and more environmentally and socially just. 

3 Next steps

We will advance this project by conducting secondary and primary research methods and follow loosely the phases of design thinking (Design Council n.d.) from Discovering the context, further Defining our scope, Developing a range of ideas and prototypes for early-stage testing and Delivering a proof-of-concept prototype of a Purposeful Innovation Fitness capability. The context for our project comes from Floris’s PhD research, as described in a post written by all authors (2020) ‘Beyond Resilience: Crisis as an Opportunity for Sustainable, Social Transformation’: “Floris’s PhD research and recent experience during the pandemic provided an interesting frame to start our exploration for a joint course project topic. In a series of design workshops facilitated by Floris, team members of a rural healthcare facility near Melbourne, Australia, have developed ideas to increase safety for patients and staff. Participants shared their design workshop experiences in individual reflective interviews after each workshop. Additionally, creative capacity building sessions were used for collective reflection and configuring future innovation efforts. This initiative was midway when it got impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, rendering face-to-face workshops impossible. With representatives of the hospital, remote options were discussed. The previously designed workshops wouldn’t work well virtually, so this presents an opportunity to rethink what design facilitation, or consultation, can mean more holistically.”

The hospital has no choice but to be resilient, as they are offering an essential service and have to find new ways to continue their efforts. Conversations with the hospital participants have begun to explore an interest in more design coaching and support and less facilitated workshops. The focus thus will shift from participants learning design tools in workshops while working on real issues, to innovating the healthcare facility while still practising design tools. This approach is new and thus offers opportunities to prompt participants to think about sustainable and social issues at various moments in the process to not just respond to the situation, but make the hospital a better place based on their values. Simultaneously, Floris will interview participants and reflect on their experienced resilience, agency and ability to participate. Informed by participants’ responses, the approach will be iterated and improved on.

As our first steps in the Discovery phase, we will benchmark existing interventions and methods or toolkits that encourage reflexive practice and purpose, such as the Reflect Mother Manual (Archer and Cottingham n.d.), and the TAAP toolkit (TAAP, n.d.). Additionally, we will delve a little bit deeper in the concepts that we proposed and how they have been applied or discussed in other contexts. Later on, we will combine our learnings from the secondary research with the interviews from the case study hospital to further Define our scope. From there, we will create a range of solution options for what a purposeful innovation fitness skill set could be like and work towards building a prototype that can be tested in the hospital context. We see this project very much as an explorative project, where we invite questions and critiques from a variety of perspectives so that we can adapt and evolve based on what we hear and learn on the way. 


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