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I’ve been enamoured with innovation for years now. I wouldn’t call myself a “techie” but those of us working in innovation circles know that innovation isn’t always about technology. I’ve always loved ‘the new thing’, be it the widget, the process or the approach that solves a problem or makes something better than it was yesterday.

When we use design thinking principles to find that “new thing”, we start with understanding the user experience, and our user is generally our customer. So when I found myself charged with driving innovation through our supplier base, initially there seemed to be a disconnect – I don’t work with customers, how can I use design thinking to drive innovation?

Well, as it turns out, you can! We recently held what we referred to as a “Possibilities Lab”. To frame it in Design Thinking terms, the Lab was a mass insights sharing session with our suppliers. Before the event, we isolated seven business challenges; the big hairy challenges that have been keeping our executive’s up night. We started by calling them “Possibilities” – a more optimistic starting point don’t you think?!

We then began at the beginning of the Design Thinking curve and conducted empathy work interviewing the “user” at the centre of those possibilities. Our users ranged from consumers, to customers (not the same as consumers in our business), system super users, employees and so on.

The insights gained from this empathy work were then shared with our top 30 suppliers at the Possibilities Lab. The suppliers covered all categories from packaging to marketing, logistics, financial services, IT and everything in between. We also included a few start-ups for good measure. Another interesting approach was to invite our suppliers to bring the people from their business whom they felt could add the most value to the possibilities we were sharing about and not just bring along the Account Managers that would normally attend these kind of events.

At the end of the lab, suppliers were invited to consider whether their internal IP, their global reach or their inherent strengths could play a role in helping us to solve our possibilities. If they felt they could, they were given seven weeks to ideate, prototype and test their ideas with our business, before a brief collaboration with the decision makers in our business who agitated their thinking, delved deeper and ultimately made a call on whether their idea was worth exploring further.

So was it successful? Well, from seven possibilities and 30 suppliers, we received over 100 discrete ideas. With a few weeks under our belt, we now have a little under 20 of these ideas feeding our innovation pipeline. And what’s been most exciting about this approach is that we have had suppliers provide ideas in areas where we wouldn’t normally have engaged with them. And, we’ve had suppliers collaborate with each other and with the start-up community to strengthen their thinking.

So if your organisation is looking to innovation to drive growth, I encourage you to think outside your four walls and invite partners from within your supply chain to collaborate with you. The results will delight you.