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Innovation in its simplest definition is the implementation of something new. A Google search of the term ‘Innovation’ will produce 570,000,000 hits. Innovation is without a doubt the buzz-word of our time. As such businesses, government departments, universities and most organizations you can think of produce and reproduce the rhetoric of innovation as core to their strategy.

However, making innovation happen, doing innovation, especially disruptive forms of innovation that bring about a major transformation, is difficult, elusive and expensive. The last decade has witnessed phenomenal growth in design thinking, at least in name more than in practice, as a way to bring about innovation.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a general term to refer to a project based technique for innovation and for creating solutions to problems.  It is a human-centered approach in that the focus is always the user; it is co-creative, and solution focused.

A core part of design thinking is an emphasis on rapid prototyping.  Rapid prototyping is the creative process of constantly building your design using arts and crafts, junk, LEGO or any other materials (including 3D printing).

Is Design Thinking a new Fad?

For some design thinking is nothing more than a fad – the hula-hoop of innovation if you like. Forcing managers and staff alike to twist and turn to keep the hoop spinning, but eventually, the fun comes to an end, it’s dropped, and they move on to the next big fad.

Typically in such businesses you will find people with their hands dirty from colored markers, covered in post-it notes from head to toe, and lots of lovely drawings on poster paper and whiteboards as they get to do things they don’t normally do for a day or two (fun for a while but then everything goes back to normal).

Design Thinking

The problem is that such approaches are in all likelihood doomed to failure and give an incorrect impression of design thinking, and more often than not they are facilitated by people with little understanding of the origins and evolution of the method. To this end, it is a fad, because the ‘fun’ and ‘creative’ part is not translated into actionable knowledge and implementation.

Despite the growth in people who label themselves design thinkers, very few actually practice design thinking beyond running a workshop on ideation. Often they will leave it at that. Indeed, there are debates within design thinking as to whether it is something everyone can do, or whether it is a specialized craft.

In other words, the only way to make design thinking a sustainable strategic advantage is to embed it within your organization (Brown, 2015).

What do I think? Like all crafts, it is fairly easy to learn but takes years to master. It relies partly on talent, but mainly on learning and embedding that craft and like almost all crafts, it can take 10,000 hours of learning to master.

So, the reality is that design thinking is a serious method that has evolved over many decades and is a game changer in terms of not only how we innovate, but also how we design and deliver complex projects with a focus on the human (which is also why it’s often referred to as human-centered design). However, as Brown (2015) argues, it has to be embedded through sustained use.

Design Thinking

Focus on the Solution

The focus in design thinking should always be on the solution, the users and its implementation (which is basically the definition of innovation). Implementation is critical – coming up with an idea is not enough.

It would be a mistake for you to think that design thinking is nothing more than a creative fad: Parsons-Brinkerhoff, IBM, GE, Westpac Bank, Arup, Siemens, P&G, NASA, the military (such as The Royal Australian Air Force) and so many more, now have active engagement with design thinking, dedicated design thinking departments and have developed several design thinking capabilities.

Indeed, IBM now employs more designers than any other profession and has instituted IBM Design Thinking. In many cases, the design thinking movement within these organizations has provided a new service that they can now offer to their clients. The return on investment in design thinking is, therefore, great.

The greatest strength of design thinking is that once you get the core principles, and have the right resources and people in place, it is a method and process you can develop for your own business needs, and it can also transform into a dynamic capability for your own service provision for your customers and clients.

In this article for ManageMagazine I will identify some of its core components and pointers on how you can tailor design thinking to your own organization and client(s) needs.

According to Hasso Plattner (co-founder of SAP):

“Innovation requires curiosity and an open mind. Design thinking is thinking in terms of opportunities, not restrictions or prohibitions. It is a holistic approach and encourages thinking across boundaries, thereby enabling real and fundamental innovations”.

Once in contact with design thinking, people experience a sustainable shift in their mindset and how they act and think. There is also a shift in the way people approach challenges. (…) design thinking views problems from a human perspective, with the objective of designing innovative products, services, or experiences that are technically feasible, economically viable, and desirable for the target group” (Plattner, Meinel & Leifer (2016: v).

The Core Components of Design Thinking and How to Do It

There are some core principles in design thinking, which you will find in almost all derivations of the practice. This list is by no means comprehensive but it does have the absolute core components. Let’s look at these now:

1. Design Thinking is Multi-Disciplinary and Co-Creative

Multi-disciplinary and co-creative: design thinking works best because it includes people with differing worldviews from our own. It is critical in design thinking that you involve people a) from across departments, b) from different disciplines, and c) wherever possible from your client or end-user.

When thinking about doing design thinking, you need to ensure a good representation of people from key parts of the organization. One error many people make in design thinking is they believe anyone can be part of the team; in my experience, this is not the case at all.

design thinking

It is highly recommended that whatever the problem you are seeking to solve, you include an expert in the field. For example, if you are seeking to innovate a car seat, you include an expert in ergonomics and or perhaps in touring. However, that is not enough, you would include in your team a client or user, a designer, and other key people you believe to be critical to the design problem.

An important note here: sometimes you need to think about various users. For example, a driver needs different things from a car seat to say a passenger, however, people who must service the seat may also be a user of your design, so what good is a car seat if the service people cannot access parts to maintain and repair for example? So think about whom your user is, and also try to think from multiple users perspectives. Include them in the design process.

2. Design Thinking is Human-Centred

Empathy and the human at the centre is a core strength of design thinking. One of its most challenging features for many people in organizations is that it is human-centred.

As such design thinking emphasizes the need to display empathy, which simply means the ability to appreciate and understand others feelings and experiences. For this reason, in design thinking we spend a lot of time and effort to know our user (which is why it is often referred to as a user-centered approach).

In design thinking there are many ways to get to understand and make sense of our user and the problems they are dealing with. One method is to actually embed yourself or your team with the client or user. See what she sees, experience what she experiences, and make sense of the problems she faces each day.

You will tend to find that there are multiple problems, which complicate the solution. This gives you a real life understanding of the problem and how you might design the solution by focusing on the real problem rather than a symptom.

Another way is to create an empathy map, or persona, where you literally map your user. Often we ensure that your user is a real person or group of people, you draw them, give them a face, a name, a history and back story, likes, dislikes, fears, the challenges they face, how they feel, what they want to achieve at work and in life. These can be based on real people, or you can create the person you believe is your idealized user.

Here is an example of a persona created at one of my design thinking sessions with the NHS in the UK. This one was on designing ways to improve clinical trials in cardiovascular disease:

Design thinking

3. Design Thinking and Prototyping

Rapid prototyping – prototype early and prototype often: when we have a good understanding of the problem, one of the most wonderful aspects of design thinking is that we can get creative and use all kinds of materials and craft to create a rough prototype of our solution.

Rough is key, and we keep developing it, testing it, improving it, prototype, testing it, over and over again. In the space of a few hours, you may have built 20 or 30 prototypes. Remember, because we use junk, and craft to build it, failure is very cheap.

Often a team may come to their final prototype. It is tempting to say “we are done, let’s go with this one”, and if you’re only seeking incremental innovation, that would be fine. However, you may be missing out on an opportunity of that one big idea, or what Martin Steinert and Larry Leifer (2012) refer to in this process as The Dark Horse.

A dark horse is a general theme that has its origins in horse racing. The dark horse is the horse everyone overlooks, which comes from nowhere to win the race. 

The dark horse can be your opportunity for disruptive innovation. Rather than packing up and going home, what they recommend is that you prototype a complete alternative.

4. Design Thinking and the Extreme User

Extreme User – in some engineering circles the extreme use can be taken to mean the maximum number of users, however, the extreme user actually refers to designing for the most difficult user possible.

This requires thinking of the most difficult user to service. Doing so ensures you design for your constraints, and can provide the foundations of a more robust innovation.

For example, think of a toy ball for a dog. You would probably design it for a person to throw it, and for a dog to catch it and return it. However, what if you assumed the dog was lazy, how might you design a ball for a lazy dog? Maybe it would have a remote control that would ensure it came back to the person throwing it if the dog did not want to retrieve it?

What about something more difficult, what if you design motorcycles? What if your user had no arms, how would you better design this motorbike? Once you did this, what would the advantages be for someone with arms and who is able bodied? What might be the applications? These might seem like silly examples, but hopefully, you get the idea here.

Designing for the most difficult user forces you to think about constraints. Designing for these constraints can actually increase usability for a larger user base. Ironically, more than if you had designed for an average user.

5. Implement or Execute

Implement or execute – a mistake many businesses make is that they want to see the ROI (return on investment) before they have even created the innovative product or service. “Show us the money! Show us the ROI!” they scream. These sorts of businesses make fatal innovation errors. Rather, create first and then work out the ROI.

Having said this, you often see DT fail, because teams tend to end the process at the prototyping phase. Once you have your final prototype, you then move to the business case and business plan.

Here you do all the usual stuff for building a business case, including actually creating the ‘real’ version of the innovation, materials, and operations, think about marketing and distribution, sales and service, logistics, costing, the business model and so on. 

6. The Embedding of Design Thinking

Embed design thinking by ensuring political, symbolic, cultural and human capital: the final point I will leave you with is the importance of embedding design thinking as a sustainable part of your business or organization. To do this you need to ensure the following forms of capital are in place:

Political Capital

Political capital: political capital refers to how decisions are made in the organization, how they are made, who has voice and power, and who does not. Many organizations, even massive ones, where design thinking teams or departments have been implemented, really struggle.

The existing culture of how things are done often prevails. Indeed, when I talk to leaders in organizations I explain how difficult change is. Using design thinking in a business can be like throwing a stone in a vat of black molasses. You see the stone go in, there is a small indentation and ripple, and then it is consumed. The molasses then settles looking like nothing ever touched it.

If you want design thinking to make a difference – fund it, resource it, and champion it from the top

For design thinking to really thrive, those in leadership and power must believe in the method and its innovative capacities. Strategy is quite simple really: fund and resource the things you want to happen, and don’t fund and resource the things you don’t want to happen. If you want design thinking to make a difference, fund it, resource it, and champion it from the top.

Symbolic and Cultural Capital

Symbolic and cultural capital relates to culture, and especially what people see, feel, touch, and smell in the organization. At least some area of the organization should be resourced for dynamic design thinking interactions – here you may have standing tables, and a ton of resources for crafting, 3D printers, LEGO, modeling clay, scrap metal, tools, all kinds of stationary. Include stages where people can present their work and treat the prototypes as artwork – they will become part of your history. Create your own Design-Thinking-labs.

By cultural capital your organization lives and breathes by the human-centered design ethos. Here your HR development will augment the analytical and technical skills and capabilities already in your organization with strengths in empathy, creativity, team working and collaborations.

When you say we are human-centered, this will be obvious not only in words but also in actions and in terms of the design of your workspaces. This will be how your clients or users also make sense of you. You care and understand the problems they face, and you offer real solutions tailored to their needs.

Human Capital

Human capital refers to the people you have inside and outside the organization. This includes not only your staff, but your customers or clients, suppliers, and supply chains, and direct and indirect stakeholders.

Have a policy on how you work with people such as you clients. What is in it for them? Also think about your legal and contracting approaches, which can often thwart innovation when involving co-creation. What sorts of contracts would work best? How will you bind people together to work as design thinkers?

Don’t be afraid to build your human capital through your social networks and relationships. Expand these networks to ensure you get a broad canvas upon which to innovate. In addition to your clients, work with local schools for example to make an impact on how our young people are educated or perhaps assist not-for-profits – you will be surprised how these loose networks can inspire some of your future innovations.

Very importantly, and depending on your business type, invest in experts, such as designers as they are an important part of your human capital.

Develop resources and methods and refine and tailor them to how your organization does business. Design thinking works best when you augment it and embed it into your organization. It does not work if you try to force it as a method.

Allow it to evolve and develop resources and capabilities unique to your own organization. You will be surprised at how quickly people adopt it if they know it’s not a method that is enforced. It’s fine if not everyone joins in.

On a Final Note

That’s it for now, yet before I leave you, I just want to provide a few caveats.

First, this article is quite general, and you need to take into consideration the type of industry you are in and also how you define innovation as an organization.

Secondly, and as I said previously, design thinking works best when it’s not forced on people and when it’s tailored to the organization, and to its technologies.

Third, I have not discussed whether design thinking is a tool, a method, or a process. The truth is I am not 100% certain on this. For many in design thinking it is a project-based method – and indeed my own variation of design thinking – called Future Perfect Thinking is a method.

However, increasingly, design thinking is looking like a process. While at the moment I tend to stand in the method camp, I can see how it’s developing into an innovation process, so I must admit I now have one foot in the process camp.

PS: interested in some of the stuff I have talked about in this article? If you are around Houston for the Strategic Management Society Conference October 28-31, I will be chairing a session on design thinking with some of the brightest minds in this space from academia and industry:

Sara J. Largent – Strategy and Design Thinking Leader, IBM Global Technology Services, NY; Bettina Maisch – Senior Key Expert Consultant (Design Thinking), Siemens Corporate Technology, Munich; Luciano Oviedo – Perspective, INTEL Corporation and Warwick Business School; Elena Antonacopoulou, University of Liverpool; Martin Steinert – University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and Ingo Rauth – IE Business School, and applied management scholar in innovation, transformation and design.

For more information on topics covered in this article see:

Brown, T. (2015). When Everyone Is Doing Design Thinking, Is It Still a Competitive Advantage? Harvard Business Review, August.

Brown, T. (2009) Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. HarperCollins: NY.

For more on design thinking, see also:

Clegg, S. R., Kornberger, M., & Pitsis, T. S. (2016). Managing and Organizations: An Introduction to theory and practice. Sage: Thousand Oaks, Ca. pp. 547-551.

Kelley, T., & Kelley D., (2013) Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Crown Business: NY.

Learn more about Roger Martin at http://rogerlmartin.com/meet-roger

For more on the evolution of design thinking at the d.school and excellent chapters on researching design thinking, see:

Plattner, H., Meinel, C., & Leifer, L. (Eds) Design Thinking Research: Making Design Thinking Foundational. 2016. Springer: NY.

See and read more about IDEO at https://www.ideo.com/eu

Read more about d.School https://dschool.stanford.edu

Learn more about The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at Postdam https://hpi.de/en/school-of-design-thinking.html

Steinert, M & Leifer, M. J. (2012) ‘Finding One’s Way’: Re-Discovering a Hunter-Gatherer Model based on Wayfaring, International Journal of Engineering Education Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 251–252.

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