Cultivating Innovation as a Designer

Satosi Isiguro teaches Design Thinking at GLOBIS University. Cristian Vlad recently interviewed him about helping clients commit to innovation and pursuing creativity himself as a designer.

CV:         How do you perceive innovation?
SI:           It’s beautifully simple. Many people think that innovation is a matter of genius—that you have to be Einstein or Newton or Van Gogh or Beethoven in order to innovate. Really, there are opportunities for innovation everywhere in the modern world. You can find it in new products, services, and business models, or even in social transformations. It could be anything!

CV:         If it’s so simple, why do so many organizations struggle with innovation?
SI:           In my view, they are not really struggling. That is to say, they’re not really trying. These days, everyone says that they want more innovation, that they want to transform their business, that they welcome disruptive ideas and want to install a culture of innovation. Too often, this is all hot air. Organizations that really want to innovate commit every single resource that they have to innovation.

CV:         Why can’t some organizations commit?
SI:            I have a lot of friends and clients who are quite serious about innovative development, but hesitate when it gets too real. We often discuss opportunities to challenge the status quo and do things differently. Everyone is happy and excited…until they start seeing the risk. They have to go all in. They have to bring meaningful diversity to their payroll. Unfortunately, that’s often where the conversation ends.

For generations, business administrators have been raised to create and manage just-in-time manufacturing systems, risk-free businesses, super-efficient working environments, and corporate groupism. To them, innovation is something that needs to be served à la carte, on a shiny plate with silver cutlery. No matter how promising an innovation initiative might be, without a bullet-proof risk mitigation formula, it will never take off. What they need to understand is this: innovation means evolution.

CV:         So you’re saying these organizations need to change their mindset.
SI:           Absolutely. Especially in Japan. It’s so frustrating to hear so many people talk about digital operations and high tech as if they were fashion trends. Everyone wants to have technology just for the sake of having technology. I frequently ask executives why they want to invest in AI, blockchain, or IoT, and the most frequent response I receive is, “Everyone else seems to have it.” That’s so painful to hear. Businesses without a purpose, without a vision, without the passion to create and contribute to the betterment of society can have whatever technology whey want, but it will mean nothing to their customers or their employees. Technology is a tool, not a destination.

CV:         You mentioned that Japan, in particular, has to change. Do you have to approach Japanese clients and associates differently than their international counterparts?
SI:           I might adjust my approach depending on the person or organization, but my overall objective as a consultant doesn’t change. For me, the method of communication is not a major concern—only the purpose is important. Having said that, one particular skill is irreplaceable: empathy. If you design for yourself, you can do anything you wish. If, however, you want to design products and services for others, you’ll have to understand your audience—their needs and feelings. Nobody can taste food from pictures or feel fresh air by only looking at a postcard. People understand by logic, but can only be persuaded by emotion. This is what I practice and strive to convey to the people I work with, regardless of their nationality or location.

CV:         So many companies hesitate to innovate, but how do you know when you’ve innovated enough? Is there such a thing as too much innovation?
SI:           Innovation is a mountain with no top. Having said that, I try to be constantly mindful of innovating with a purpose—a strong sense of value creation, social contribution, and ethics. My objective is quite simple: to make the world a better place. I’m always trying to see if there is something that needs to be fixed, improved, or created from scratch. For me, innovation is as much about creating solutions as it is about creating tools to find those solutions.

CV:         How does design thinking fit into innovation?
SI:           As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Everyone has to support each other in an innovation project, whether it’s creating a new product or service, revamping a strategy, or transforming a business model. For that, we need tools. Design thinking is a process consisting of a set of tools commonly used by those seeking to innovate—business architects, product developers, marketers, talent operators, and so on. Thanks to design thinking’s role in innovation, we are better than yesterday, and tomorrow we will be better than today.

CV:         Do you ever struggle with inspiration on your end?
SI:           Inspiration isn’t as much of a challenge as time management. The design process can be broadly divided into 2 phases: creation and confirmation. When we create, we work on styling, shapes, colors and so on. Sometimes, things are easy; other times, the process can take a tremendous amount of time. Time, of course, is a precious resource, but the best designs are often unpredictable. It can be hard to tell how long a particular process will take. The quality of the final result may depend on the time we can afford to allocate.

The confirmation stage includes calculations and simulations to determine the feasibility of engineering, manufacturing, and cost. These steps tend to be more predictable, time-wise, which makes it possible for designers to spend more time in the creation part—more than ever before.

CV:         What advice do you have for young people thinking about becoming designers?
SI:           It’s a completely different approach to life, and it may not be for everyone. Designers work incredibly hard. There is no such thing as work-life balance for truly passionate creators, regardless of whether you are a product designer, a talent operator, a communicator, a digital engineer, a fashion designer, or an architect. The work may not be suited to those who enjoy regular eight-hour shifts in front of a computer in a corporate office. Having said that, I encourage all young people to consider how important passion is and commit to the creation of their own meaningful reality.

Satosi Isiguro is a design engineer, engineering consultant, and product planner based in Nagoya. As a founder of 14Lab, he has designed and consulted on various projects, from cars to medical facilities to furniture. Prior to his current role as concept engineering director at JCE Japan Creative Enterprise, Satosi worked for ten years as a body structure design engineer and platform strategist for Toyota.
He holds a master of engineering, specializing in electromechanical engineering, from Nagoya University and teaches design thinking at GLOBIS University.

A seasoned veteran of business transformation, organizational development and innovation initiatives, both in terms of product and organizational innovation, Cristian Vlad is the President and CEO of JCE Japan Creative Enterprise, a young and dynamic agency which helps corporate teams transform their business and manage their talent. Cristian has been advising global clients on the role of diversity, human capital, creativity and corporate communications as strategic business drivers to foster innovation and stimulate business growth. He has been recognized by both multinational corporations and emerging enterprises as a thought leader in the areas of business strategy, relationship management, organizational development and architecture, leadership, social media, collaborative environments, people operations, transformation and business model innovation. In parallel, Cristian is an IBM Global Business Services consultant, advising corporate clients on Talent and Organizational Transformation projects.

Prior to his current role, Cristian was project manager at Toyota Motor Corporation, where he led a team of advanced product development professionals within the Corporate Value Creation Department. He also consulted on numerous organizational changes, corporate rebranding and transformation projects globally, in a wide rage of industries. Cristian holds an MA in International Relations from Hirosaki University and a dual BA in Communications and Foreign Language Education from the University of Bucharest.

Cristian currently resides in Fukuoka, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

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