Your Guide to Innovation and Design Methods

By Jeremiah Owyang, with co-contributor Ryan Brinks

Corporations are approaching innovation processes and methods in different manners, we’ve seen catalogs of over 70 examples. Here’s a sample of the most common methods that we’ve commonly heard in our interviews from our recent report on the Corporate Innovation Imperative (download). Feel free to leave comments below with a design process or method that you feel if valuable, and explain why.

In summary, here’s the most commonly discussed and adopted versions, both in a high-level table below, then summaries below with a diagram

Guide to Innovation and Design Methods

Name: Founded: Type: Best for: Differentiator:
Waterfall 1956 by Herbert D. Benington Linear Well-Defined projects Teams work independently on each stage
Lean Startup 2008 by Eric Ries Circular Unproven Markets Low investment to test the market
Design Thinking 1969 by Herbert Simon Circular Creative, unconventional solutions Forces exploration of ideas beyond the familiar
Agile 2001 by the writers of the Agile Manifesto Circular Volatile projects Can quickly and easily adapt to project changes
Design Sprints 2010 by Jake Knapp Conceptual Problem-solving Produces a tested prototype in just one week
Rapid Prototyping 1981 by Hideo Kodama Back-and-forth Manufactured products Direct digital-design-to-prototype approach







Known for a traditional method, it’s best suited to products for which the customer’s needs and expectations are well defined, the waterfall design methodology flows sequentially through six stages of development, completing one milestone before reaching the next. Waterfall design begins by understanding the context surrounding the problem to be solved and forming boundaries within which the solution must exist. Next comes the theoretical design of the product itself, followed by prototyping and testing. The fifth stage is packaging and delivery, and the final consideration is ongoing maintenance and customer service. “Even though there are newer and sexier development processes available, most projects are still probably using some version of this approach to deliver their projects,” TechRepublic stated.

Example: Acme project leaders sit down to interview a corporate client and agree on requirements for the project. They then instruct the design team to produce plans, which are prototyped and tested. From there, designs are tweaked, the prototype refined, and more testing conducted until the product is launched. Post-deployment, customer service keeps tabs on issues and ongoing maintenance.


Lean Startup

Rather than presume to know what customers need and want, the lean startup design methodology helps innovators focus on a disciplined management process that transforms an idea into a product by circling around and around three core principles: build, measure, and learn. This process begins by solving the problem with a basic, unrefined minimum viable product (MVP). The development team can then test the MVP internally and externally with a focused group of target customers. The feedback and learning then feed back into a new round of refinements, tests, and feedback. Soon the product is spiraling along an ever-rising and broadening helix that exposes it to better technology and more customers. “By the time that product is ready to be distributed widely, it will already have established customers,” states. “It will have solved real problems and offer detailed specifications for what needs to be built.”

Example: As soon as a product idea is formulated, Acme’s build team puts together a rough working MVP and passes it along for testing and exposure to a focus group of customers. Based on tests and feedback about the potential for the MVP, the build team reworks or refines the MVP and presents it for another round of testing and customer feedback. Eventually, early versions of the product gain momentum with beta testers, and their feedback defines the direction of future enhancements.


Design Thinking


The design thinking methodology encourages exploration of unconventional solutions by forcing innovators to go beyond their instincts and experience. Design thinking starts with the challenge of defining not just any problem but the right problem, and that requires developers to leave the comfort of stereotypes and theories to confront the realities of their customers’ situations and habits. It also involves intense questioning of every perspective. To then solve the right problem, a diverse team must be disciplined enough to push past the solutions that come easily and propose many other, often more creative, possibilities. From there, the team experiments freely with the most promising ideas until a winner emerges that can ultimately be prototyped and tested. “Design thinking,” according to Fast Company, “describes a repeatable process employing unique and creative techniques which yield guaranteed results — usually results that exceed initial expectations. Extraordinary results that leapfrog the expected.”





Though more ambiguous than other methodologies, Agile represents any methodology that’s focused on creating products in a way that quickly adapts to ever-changing needs, demands, ideas, and technologies. At the core of Agile is a set of four guiding values and 12 principles. Being Agile means prioritizing individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. This is typically accomplished by breaking projects into small pieces and conducting short-term iterations that move products along one goal at a time. Between iterations, teams have the opportunity to act on feedback, re-prioritize goals, etc.





Design sprints are five-day shortcuts to solving big problems or tapping new markets through high-level idea prototyping. Developed by the minds behind Google Ventures, “the sprint gives you a superpower: You can fast-forward into the future to see your finished product and customer reactions before making any expensive commitments.” Google Ventures outlines the design sprint process by day: “On Monday, you’ll map out the problem and pick an important place to focus. On Tuesday, you’ll sketch competing solutions on paper. On Wednesday, you’ll make difficult decisions and turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis. On Thursday, you’ll hammer out a high-fidelity prototype. And on Friday, you’ll test it with real live humans.”


Rapid Prototyping


With the rise of 3D printing has come the emergence of rapid prototyping, which transforms digital CAD designs directly into functional prototypes or concept models. The rapid prototyping process accelerates testing, cuts out wasted time and resources, and leads to earlier detection of important product flaws or issues. It can also allow for wider experimentation of different manufacturing materials, including photopolymers, thermoplastics, metals and composites. Rapid prototyping can even engineer the tooling or molds needed for large-scale production.

Summary: Choose a design method that suits your need.
What’s most interesting is that very advanced companies like WL Gore train and educate all their employees on a common innovation framework (in this case, Lean Startup method) and encourage all teams to approach, measure, and even report up on this method. I personally care less about which method you choose, as long as it’s the right one for the business and encourages a culture of innovation beyond just pockets of labs. Lastly, we found that many agencies, consulting firms and innovation boutique companies have their own permutations of the following methods, which they rebrand and package up for their clients. Here’s a sample of a few processes that we’ve observed, feel free to leave a comment with additional versions, below.

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