Design Thinking

The Missing Link in Corporate Think

Why think like a designer in business?

Because tangled problems involving people require an approach that is equally people-centered. That holds engagement as a core tenet. An approach that is creative — that adapts to an emerging problem space. That looks for new problems and opportunities, instead of just solving existing ones. That is iterative, that focusses on taking small inexpensive bets so that when the ‘big bucks’ are spent, they are spent on something that’s likely to succeed.

What kinds of ‘tangled’ problems am I talking about? Anything that falls under umbrellas such as innovation, culture, engagement, change and leadership, for a start. Anything that involves changing how people think and behave. Which sounds straightforward until you recognise that changing how people think and behave is what causes the 80%+ failure rates in each of these areas (major IT implementation anyone?) — and is the reason that when you do manage to make it work, the rewards are astounding. (Just look at Pixar, who are the poster-child in nearly all of those areas.)

Design Thinking is not a universal panacea. But used in tandem with traditional management frameworks, and treated as a mindset rather than a fixed process, design thinking can provide the ‘missing link in corporate think’. And it's a great place to start your company's innovation journey. Which is why business schools from Rotman’s to MIT, Darton to Stanford to our own MGSM ( where I run the courses) all teach it. And companies such as Apple, P&G, GE, Westpac, Coca-Cola, Woolworths, Deloitte and SAP — to name but a small fraction — all use it.

If you want to find out what it can do for your business, drop me a line.  
When people/companies are willing to allow a true discovery phase and a non-linear development path.

Traditional business innovation processes usually start with brainstorming then move on quickly to the tangible phases of creating something new — testing, developing, making and launching. This is true whether the innovation is a new product or service, a new IT implementation or a new culture change project.

What is most often missing from this picture is that the quality of the ideas depends on the quality of the insight they are based on. This in turn depends on whether you’re ‘solving’ a meaningful problem in the first place and whether you’ve spend enough time exploring that space to come up with something both juicy and striking. A surprising truth that changes the game and acts as a springboard for everything you develop. Because that’s what ensures that what you do is relevant and sticky. That it’s not just feasible, and viable, but highly desirable as well.
Anywhere you have a wicked problem, and many places where you don’t.

The traditional design thinking strongholds are product, service and user interface design. Now however there is increasing focus on how to apply design thinking to other areas of business — to business models and management processes, to strategy, sales, customer relationships and personal effectiveness.

Design thinking is a light, portable and adaptable way of exploring gnarly areas where there’s no clear way forward.
I find the biggest challenge companies have in using design thinking on a wider basis is that it tends to be seen and deployed as a noun instead of a verb. A thing or a fixed process that you can push information through or apply like a bandaid instead of a different way of thinking. This often happens when they have a solution in mind and are looking for a problem to retro-fit to it.

Thinking like a designer takes practice, since many of the assumptions and defaults are very different to those usually applied in business when solving complex problems. The ability to be comfortable in ambiguity, for example. To look and listen for things you aren’t expecting, that contradict your assumptions or represent other equally valid viewpoints. And to Speak Human (this sounds much easier than it is). Not just to use plain English instead of corp-speak, but to understand that emotions are key. That people make decisions emotionally and then post-rationalise furiously to ‘make sense’ of them.

As an example, here’s a quick overview of a few of the many differences between a standard business or management approach and a design thinking approach:
Assumes people behave rationally Assumes people behave non-rationally
Focuses on productivity Focuses on being productive
Inform Engage
Fix Create
Seeks predictability Seeks the unpredictable and novel
Strategise and plan Play
Execute Adapt
Competitive Collaborative
Linear process... Cyclical and iterative process...
So when design thinking fails to be effective, it is usually because while the company or practitioners are talking the talk, they aren’t walking the proverbial walk. They’re talking cyclical but thinking linear, talking about problem finding but trying to find something they are comfortable they can solve, or defaulting back to thinking product instead of people. And it's such ingrained behaviour that they're often not even aware that they're doing it.
Some history
While the process of design has been around for ever, the concept of codifying it and promoting it as ‘design thinking’ and applying it to non-design areas like business really started to take hold in the early 1990s, largely with the well-known design company IDEO. The or Hasso Plattner Institute of Design was founded in 2005 at Stanford as a collaboration between David Kelley, Larry Leifer, Bernard Roth and George Kembel, with funding from Hasso Plattner, who later funded another D.SCHOOL in Potsdam. The philosophy and methodology have been increasingly adopted by major corporations, largely within product development, innovation and R&D units. In the last five years, this trend has spread to it being adopted as a creative problem solving methodology within the more strategic business space.

There are plenty of them, mostly based on some sort of Discovery / Design / Deliver or Understand / Reflect / Experiment format. They differ in the context they were created in, the number of steps and the things they make explicit as opposed to implicit. (For example IDEO’s model talks about empathy but not delivery, whereas the Design Council’s Double Diamond does the opposite.)

What they all share are some common principles:
  • They are all cyclical and iterative, regardless of how they are drawn
  • They all take a human-centred approach and assume the importance of emotions
  • They all focus on rapid prototyping as a means of exploring the territory
  • They all stress reframing and redefining the problem, often many times
  • They all stress a long discovery process, including much observation and questioning.
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