frog founded in 1969 by industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger, is one of the longest-running global innovation consultancies in the business. Though started in Altensteig, Germany, it became famous for working with companies like Apple and Napster in California.
frog paved the way for other design focused consultancy services to follow, such as David Kelley Design in 1978, which in 1991became IDEO. Now frog itself is being swallowed up in the wave of consolidation that has hit the innovation agencies — it was acquired by Altran in November 2017, which in turn was bought by consulting firm Capgemini.
Ross Landles, studio head of frog London, tells Sifted about the next big tech shift and the limits of trendy methodologies, such as human-centred design.
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How do you define ‘innovation’ and how do you best describe your job?
Is there a more loaded term than ‘innovation’? Across business it’s used to mean everything, from mission-critical activities to bullshit theatre, which means too often it ends up meaning nothing.
Perhaps it’s something you know when you see it. Today in our London studio we see many innovation projects with seemingly little in common, like defining an experience strategy to launch a new bank, building a new venturing capability for a global tech firm, designing a new tool for asthma treatments, or designing a novel interface out of ambient sound.
“Is there a more loaded term than ‘innovation’? It used to mean everything and ends up meaning nothing.”
Our partners come to us when they face big challenges. Often these are business problems and burning platforms. Sometimes they are adjacent growth opportunities. And, occasionally, they’re longer-term visionary change. But all of them in some way challenge the present state of the corporate and its products, services, operations, people or culture.
Coming back to the second part of the question, my role is leading Frog’s London studio as part of the five-person regional leadership team for our eight-studio EMEA [Europe, the Middle East and Africa] group. I get involved in the inception of our programmes, helping to define the structure and shape of the path between A and B. Because the stakes are high for our partners and their businesses, deciding on what ‘A’ and ‘B’ are can be very hard and always involves a lot of effort across Frog and with our partners. We often get the feedback that this support is among the most valuable that we provide because it helps clients overcome a moment of maximal ambiguity in deciding how to innovate.
What do you think will be the biggest threat for Frog in the next five to 10 years?
Frog is a 50-year-old firm founded by Hartmut Eslinger. From our early days as an industrial design firm with Apple, to moving towards digital and designing Napster, each wave of progress has looked like a threat and transpired to be an opportunity.
An industry pundit five to 10 years ago might have said that the rise of corporate innovation and customer experience teams would be a threat to Frog. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, some of the most interesting products, business or organisations that we’ve built have been with more fused client teams or involved helping clients build out these groups.
“Looking forward the biggest question is whether we will remain in the current mobile-internet paradigm.”
Looking forward, perhaps the biggest question is whether we will remain in the current mobile-internet paradigm or whether emerging technologies, such as machine learning, edge computing (5G), or others will bring about another shift in what is possible.
However it plays out, our history suggests that frog is set up to take advantage of these transitions. Philosophically, we see the strategy of responding to these changes as a creative act. Our mindset is to project out from need to imagine what should be and map backwards to arrive at what we need. With this in mind, perhaps the biggest threat would actually be a lack of change, although judging the world today this feels unlikely.
How do you challenge yourself and your team to ‘think outside the box’?
We try to hire the best people in a number of key vertical and craft disciplines and it’s very important to develop them into the broadest thinkers. The best education our people get is by working with other frogs in different parts of the world.
Right now, in Europe we have teams working with other Frog Design Studios to develop experience strategies for online2offline and China, building deep digital product development capabilities in India, supporting fintechs in London and building new companies in the Middle East.
Moving folks around the world like this is extremely hard work. But it means our people can pick up the most interesting opportunities and transpose them into new circumstances on different markets and verticals.
What is currently not working in corporate innovation?
One area that I think is interesting right now is the limit of human-centred design (HCD). To be clear, Frog is a big proponent of this thinking. We were one of a handful of firms pioneering these methods many years ago. What I think is interesting are the unintended consequences HCD can create.
“Human-centred design can have unintended consequences.”
HCD helps people think about innovation as an optimisation problem, as in, given a number of constraints, let’s optimise a product for a given type of person. This is very effective in creating products that people value. However, there can be some negative consequences of this optimisation. Take the example of Airbnb. While it is a fantastic tool for maximising the use of properties, it is making rents in inner in cities like Paris and Rio unworkable for locals. This isn’t just bad in itself but counter to Airbnb’s overall value proposition — so there are many good reasons to take note. Increasingly, we’re looking at evolving the meaning of being human-centred in order to incorporate more socially conscious models that consider individual products and services and experiences outside of a vacuum, and as part of a broader ecosystem.
What advice would you give to a new head of innovation — what do they need to get right from day one?
From our vantage point, I would say you need strong alignment within your business for two key areas: the time horizon for the return from your investments and how you will spin off your efforts, either within your business or outside.
“Too many good initiatives die looking for a route back into (or out of) the business.”
One common misalignment is between the likely timeframe for returns on innovation. These might not be set upfront or there can be a lot of conflict in aligning these to the time horizon of the main business. If there isn’t alignment, then the lab or function can appear to be a privileged centre of cost by other business functions, or be forced into an unrealistic operating rhythm.
Too many good initiatives die looking for a route back into (or out of) the business. The reasons behind this feel understandable at the time: funding, executive turnover, not-invented-here. But often the root cause is that the innovation teams haven’t had their operating model hard-wired into the business, and so solutions for scaling into or out of the business are made ad-hoc.
What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation?
We have former frog Dave Sherwin coming to speak to our London studio in a few months about his book Turning People into Teams, which has a lot of strong methodologies and activities that organisations can use to collaborate around a common purpose. Sherwin was instrumental in creating the Collective Action Toolkit, a free frog guide for any team looking to solve problems and create change in their communities.
But if you want to nerd out, I would recommend The Nature of Technology by WB Arthur.