Kristina Bonitz: finding innovation with human friction

Innovation isn't just copying what others do. It's what emerges when humans disagree — but work together to find solutions.

Kristina is an innovation consultant, business designer and strategist, currently working at Sinnerschrader. Working in the intersection of business, design, culture, technology and human realities, Kristina’s work strives to inspire organisations to imagine and design better futures for people, society, and the planet.

In the seventh episode of season two of What’s NEXT, she explored how to find and develop creativity and innovation in life, business and the pandemic age. 

Watch the complete episode

Kristina feels almost embarrassed to talk about innovation, becomes it has become a kind of theatre. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, she suggests:

“We need to keep that out, bring it down a notch, and guide discussions back to reality. Innovation needs to be relevant to everyone, not just to those people living in the big urban centres,” she says. “The first thing that helps us talk to real people is to go out into the streets, into their home. When you come out of your filter bubble, you find that things that are normal to us are alien to people living elsewhere.“

Kristina would recommend this approach to anyone — even though it sometimes hurts.

Having the real conversations

Indeed, she’s clear that discomfort — friction — is an essential element of innovation. When she kicks off a project, she admits she can get on a client’s nerves by asking many questions, rather than just jumping straight to solutions.

“We do a lot of ethnography, taking clients into the homes of their customers,” she says. And it works. “If you bring them along with you, they come to appreciate it.”

The process of interacting with users can be challenging. Take, for example, financial products. People don’t like to talk about their finances, for many reasons: status, privacy, and so on. It’s a very intimate subject.

“You end up with a lot of conversations about family health, children, and so on, instead,” says Kristina. “An abstract idea like finances become intertwined with something as concrete and human as family security.” And once you understand that, you can create truly innovative solutions.

Human interaction is the root of innovation

So, innovation starts with going out into the world and talking with the people you’re trying to serve. You can’t just implement what they want, though, she suggests — you need to understand the context and the problem. That’s the insight you need from them. And so few projects actually take the time to do that.

Once you have the insight, you need the right team.

“It takes humility to admit that we can’t solve problems on our own,” Kristina says. “The hardest part of the innovation process is getting people working together who might not agree. The friction they generate is part of the process, but not many people enjoy it. To solve problems we have today, that have a range of impacts including environmental and social ones, we need to extend the invitation into the conversation to people with different skills who think very differently from us.”

And how does she go about doing that? “I have a little book full of the people who disagree with me the most, and I tend to invite them first,” she laughs. ”We need people with really strong domain knowledge, who can communicate their ideas well to others.”

Can remote innovation work?

The remote working situation has a huge impact on creativity — and, for Kristina, it just doesn’t work.

“We’ve found ways of working remotely, but I haven’t found a way of creating the same quality of innovation in a remote setting, yet,” she says. “We will find solutions — but part of me thinks we’ll never match face-to-face creativity. All the serendipitous, inspirational moments of office life are hard to imitate.”

Getting small working groups back into the office for project work might be critical to successful, innovative hybrid companies.

Posterity > Future

One interesting insight that Kristina shared was shifting away from thinking of innovation as the future and more towards it being the past of the future.

“We need to reshape our thinking away from the future and towards posterity — doing things for our children or grandchildren,” she says. “When you make it real and personal like that, things change.” You do work that you’ll be proud to be remembered for, not work that fits a narrative of the future.

Kristina outlines her “couch test” that shows if you’re on the right path: “If it feels like a good idea when explaining it to a friend sat at home on a couch, you’re on to something,” she explains. “If you can’t pass the couch test, it’s probably not something you’ll be proud to leave behind you.”

For example, so many of the convenience-based online startups aren’t really bettering humanity — they’re making us lazy, lesser humans. Will we be proud of delivering groceries in ten minutes?

“We need to design for grief, and surprise, and happiness and tears,” she says. “COVID-working has made me very efficient — but it’s also super-boring.”

From purpose to innovation

This sense of purpose needed for innovation needs also to come from within: it requires self-reflection on a personal and corporate level.

“I can’t tell what is unique about you because I am not you,” she says. “Clients mix up innovation with imitating what is up-and-coming. True innovation requires an attitude and taking a stance. And that requires courage — including the courage to fail.”

Being very, very honest from the start with clients is important, she suggests. You need to be honest about both their good and bad ideas. Part of consulting is telling them what they shouldn’t do.

“Again. It’s super hard, but it creates trust,” she says.

Involving users early on helps — they give feedback that is direct, and free of internal politics. You need to be open to what they say: not looking for the narratives you expect, but discovering what they truly think.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a detective,” she says. “And maybe that’s what I am now. A colleague once said I was addicted to curiosity and investigating new things, and that’s what brought me into trend research. And, at some point, I decided I wanted to bring those ideas to life as a strategist and consultant.”

And that’s the message she left us with. To truly change things, to make innovation happen, you have to be prepared to get out of your comfort zone, hear uncomfortable truths, and shift your perspective.

“COVID has put us all in our cubbyholes,” she concludes. “Let’s get out of them again — reach out to people from very different fields, with whole different experiences to share.”

This is a summary of an interview with Kristina Bonitz, conducted by David Mattin and Monique van Dusseldorp during the NEXT Show on May 20th, 2021. You can catch up with Kristina and her work on Twitter and LinkedIn.