The Disruptive Design Studio - An intervention method to improve exploration in the front end of Unilever's innovation process

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Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, intends to improve its exploratory capacity in the front end of its innovation process. Many companies today make use of the Stage-Gate process, as does Unilever. The Stage-Gate process is a controlled phased innovation process which supports management to make decisions on innovation The Stage-Gate process has to deal with both the company’s exploratory and exploitative activities. Though, managing exploratory and exploitative activities simultaneously through the Stage-Gate process seems to be a challenging endeavour. A balance between exploration and exploitation is essential for organizations, however, requires different ways of management. In the case of exploration, companies seem to struggle with measuring the risks against the potential return and accordingly the value of innovations Strategic management of Unilever Research and Development in Vlaardingen (URDV) noticed that employees are confronted with certain barriers in order to perform exploratory activities. They were also confronted with difficulties in implementing exploratory projects into the main part of the Stage-Gate process. Therefore, by the end of 2011 Unilever started looking into how to improve these struggles. They found out that the designer’s way of working might add value to Unilever’s front end process. Subsequently URDV initiated the Disruptive Design Studio (DDS) which is based on a co-operation between URDV and the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology. The DDS is active since February 2012 and consists of young design students working in Unilever’s front-end process on design projects based on challenges from Unilever’s business. Every five months two new DDS teams of each six second year master students from the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering work on the whole spectrum of the product development process. Because Unilever employees interact with the DDS teams throughout their design process they are able to experience the DDS’ way of working. Therefore the DDS is seen as an introduction into a new approach for Unilever to coop with exploratory innovation. However, the added value of the DDS to Unilever’s front-end process is yet unclear. This thesis aims to investigate and determine this added value with the ultimate aim to synthesize the results into an improved DDS concept. The main question of this thesis is: What are the most viable improvements for the DDS to maximize the contribution of DDS to Unilever’s current innovation process? In order to answer this question the URDV’s current barriers to exploratory innovation are identified. Next, the potential value of the DDS approach to innovation is given. Answers to these two sub questions are the starting point for identifying the impact of six former DDS teams on URDV’s barriers to innovate exploratory.