Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Start Projects With Phase Zero

Sometimes, clients just don’t know what they want. A lot of times they have a rough idea of the problem they’re trying to solve and the project they want you to work on, but even those rough ideas aren’t enough. Other times, they may not actually know exactly what they want, just that they’ll “know it when they see it.”
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dds are, your clients hired you to solve one problem or another. If they lack clarity about what they want the end result to look like, it could be because they lack clarity about what they’re trying to solve.  If that’s the case, then perhaps you ought to start your process a step back and find the right problem. It might be best to find the issues your clients’ client dealing with.

One design firm, Continuum, has been doing just that for decades and it’s lead to innovations like the Reebok Pump and the Swiffer mop. They call it “starting at Phase Zero.”

“Phase Zero was actually stepping back from what we were asked to design and understanding really what the context was of the product we were asked to innovate. The concept of Phase Zero grew into our strategy work, which is now the fundamental part of our business,” says Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai. “The idea is that the design and innovation that we were doing was really a continuum that involves multiple disciplines collaborating together and leveraging the deep knowledge that our clients might have with the broad knowledge that we would bring to the party.”

Perhaps you ought to start your process a step back and find the right problem.

In 1988, Continuum was approached by Reebok to design a response to Nike’s new Air technology, which integrated materials inside the heel of the shoe to capture and return an athlete’s energy. Nike’s innovation (and Michael Jordan’s name) had catapulted them to success and they soon surpassed Reebok as the leading producer of footwear in the United States.

After some initial research, Continuum concluded that it wasn’t possible to create a meaningful “energy return” system like what Nike claimed to have. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be enough for Reebok to design a similar system. In order to impact the market, Reebok would need to invent something totally new. To conduct research, they observed a high school basketball team in action in order to identify their needs. They found fast-growing kids with shoes that were either too tight or too loose, affecting their performance on the court, and frustrated parents who couldn’t keep up buying new shoes for their growing children every few months. At the same time, a famous Boston Celtics player was sitting out most of the season with an ankle injury.

“We thought: what if we could provide a really lightweight way of stabilizing the ankle that allowed you to play basketball closer to your full capability—and at the same time provide a custom fit for the kids on the corner just like the NBA players have when they have their shoes custom-made for them,” Zaccai recalls.The Continuum team realized that such an inflatable air pocket around the ankle of a shoe might help prevent injuries from happening without adding significant weight to the shoe. Continuum also realized that inflating the shoe to the right pressure would be an individual choice, and that a convenient way of doing that would be to integrate it into the shoe itself rather than designing a separate device. Continuum’s engineers were able to develop this idea into an integrated component that could be inserted into the shoe during manufacturing: the Reebok Pump was born.

The Tale of The Swiffer

In the case of Proctor & Gamble’s revolutionary Swiffer, P&G first approached Continuum to create a new business around cleaning the home, which might include a new cleaning tool. After lengthy research into the ways people clean floors in real-life situations, Continuum realized that many people spent as much time cleaning their mops as they did cleaning their floors. Out of that observation, the team realized they needed to develop a product that would speed up the cleaning process. They called it a “fast clean,” though given the eventual product name perhaps “swift clean” would have been better.Continuum had created a new problem, how to provide a better cleaning tool then a mop with less time spent cleaning. The team used that knowledge to design a new cleaning tool: essentially a wet towel on a stick that could be thrown away once it was soiled.

The best way to get started with Phase Zero is by interacting with your clients’ client, the end user of the project you’re designing. How do they interact with current products on the market? What challenges do they have with the current offerings?

The best way to get started with Phase Zero is by interacting with your clients’ client, the end user of the project you’re designing.

The Reebok Pump was born from observing high school kids, whose main issue wasn’t jumping a few inches higher; it was the ease of injury caused by their ill-fitting shoes. Perhaps you need to find out what “make-shift” solutions they have developed to resolve those challenges. The Swiffer mop, “fast clean” approach began when one designer noticed a woman who used a wet paper towel to clean up a small spill.

Both of these innovations became game-changers in their market, but neither was exactly what the client had asked for. In both cases, Continuum’s success stemmed from their ability to observe the clients’ client for cues to the real problem that needed solving. You don’t need to be an industrial design firm like Continuum to create game-changing new projects. You just need to make sure you’re working on the right problems. If you’re facing a vague problem, take a step back to Phase Zero and gather some insights about your clients’ client.


How about you?

What’s the first thing you do during client projects?

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David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
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