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Work Through Any Problem With The Innovators’ Compass

Written by 
Ela Ben-Ur
April 24, 2016

Example of the Innovators' Compass created by a 9th grader

Can you think of times when using a little more “design thinking” in an unexpected challenge, project presentation, or important meeting might have changed your project outcomes?

To design, make or be anything great, we’ve got to simultaneously navigate all kinds of challenges: technical to human, individual to organizational, in-the-moment to long-term.

There are wonderful processes for all those challenges. I’ve had the opportunity [read: necessity] to learn many as a design practitioner, leader, coach and parent. Like big maps, it can be hard to have just the right processes on hand, unfold them, find the right section and follow them.

The wonderful mindsets these processes cultivate can elude us, too, when all those challenges are on our minds.

However, I’ve noticed that similar fundamental questions drive different processes and people that enable innovation.

Successful innovators—design thinkers, agile developers, tinkerers, “accidental geniuses” and all of us—have a powerful compass when we’re innovating in our work and lives.

After lots of experimentation, I’ve come to visualize it like this:


We’re able to see the see past, present, and future in new ways—from details to big picture—by keeping people involved at the center and exploring these four aspects:

  • OBSERVATIONS: What’s happening—the full range? Why? What are any people involved doing? Saying? Thinking? Feeling? Why?
  • PRINCIPLES: What matters most for things to work? For all to do, think, and feel as they need? Now and in whatever happens? Why?
  • IDEAS: What could happen to fulfill (usually competing) principles? From where or whom might ideas and inspiration come?
  • EXPERIMENTS: What’s a way to try an idea, answering any questions? With the least time/risk/cost?

—even if we don’t realize these things, start in different places, use different approaches or call them different things.


I’ve experimented with lots of ideas (approaches, materials, and on) to intuitively, flexibly invoke this compass. Eventually, it occurred to me: What if this “compass” oriented a powerfully simple, tangible workspace?

Below are examples of people using the Innovators’ Compass “on paper.”

  • a leadership team working through a pressing decision
  • a facilitator doing final prep for a prototyping workshop on a sticky note (and observations afterward, in blue)
  • a student design team improving their teamwork
  • me thinking about this blog post

Some of the ways people use the Innovators' Compass

The new MURAL Innovators' Compass framework will offer people fantastic new flexibility of time, location and positioning as they use it.

You'll find the Compass in the left-hand toolbar of MURAL under "Frameworks > Design." Just drag it out onto a mural to get started immediately.

Access the Innovators' Compass from the left-hand toolbar in MURAL

When you’re doing anything that doesn't quite feel like what you’d ideally design, or just doing anything, take the compass for a quick spin.

What are your observations? Principles? Ideas? First experiment? Observations as you try that experiment? You can use the bulleted questions under “Principles” or the MURAL workspace above for further guidance, or check out the example, tips and resources below.

Try it once a day for a week. Then notice: how does this relate to your ways of navigating? How does it feel to be mindful of your observations, principles, and experiments in anything you do? Do patterns start to pop out?

Example of the Innovators' Compass for "trying the compass"


  • Use the Innovators' Compass for anything you design or do. Do it in any medium or in your head.
  • Map your journey right on it as you go, meaningfully capturing it for yourself and others.
  • Orient yourself moving whenever and wherever feels right, or start clockwise from observations.
  • Visually, verbally, and physically explore. Look, listen, experience; use words, draw, move, make.
  • Embrace everyone/thing that might be involved in the past, present, and future—explore extremes.
  • !terate, iterate, iterate! Don’t get stuck: pose questions and try a move to answer them. Your work grows as you go—think play, prototype, pilot, produce.


Using the Innovators' Compass in these little ways is a great warm-up for using it bigger groups and bigger ways.

Ultimately you can use it at different levels:

  • Spontaneous: for any immediate thing that you need to design, decide or do
  • Project-based: for things you’re consciously working on over days, weeks or months
  • Strategic: for an an ongoing look at your organization’s, or your own, evolving “portfolio” of observations, principles, ideas, and experiments

As sub-challenges come up, we can start a new compass or add smaller compasses around our big one.

We can also complement it with many of the other fantastic frameworks available in MURAL that offer greater detail for a quadrant, such as:

  • The Empathy Map or 5 Why’s to organize observations
  • The Idea Prioritization or Roadmap that prioritize ideas
  • Scenario Maps or Idea/Hunch Sketch Pads to design details of ideas and experiments
  • Canvasses like the Business Model, Event Model, Lean or Team Canvasses to get to more topic-specific detail overall

Your Compass work is a great foundation for any of these!


Learn more at There you'll find:

  • DOWNLOADS in whatever format fits you: from a business-card sized “Pocket compass” to a letter-sized poster or worksheet
  • VIDEO offering a 2-minute introduction to Innovators’ Compass
  • EXAMPLES, from individuals’ sticky notes to teams’ whiteboarding, students to professionals
  • CONTACT to reach out with your experiences and questions!

About the author

About the authors

Ela Ben-Ur

Ela Ben-Ur works with organizations and individuals striving to innovate. She's a veteran of 13 years at innovation firm IDEO, professor at pioneering Olin College, and graduate of MIT. Her daughters are her inspiration.