What is design thinking?
Put simply, design thinking is a human-centred approach to solving complex problems. You don’t have to be a designer to use this process – you just need to think like one.
So how can you do that? Focus on understanding the end user first before delving into the solution. Then build your solution iteratively and test it / tweak it to create something that will make the user’s life easier.
When people hear ‘design thinking’, they often think about the ‘double diamond’, which is a great little visual illustration created by the British Design Council in the early noughties. It highlights the importance of divergent thinking (i.e. opening up) before convergent thinking (i.e. narrowing down) and showcases the key phases of the process: discover, define, develop, deliver.
Implementing design thinking
My first experience with design thinking was working with Pearson’s award-winning Lean Product Lifecycle (PLC) – first as a Publisher utilising it to create new products, and then as an Implementation Director in the PLC team, training and coaching teams across the company to embed it in their product development processes. After working with developing products for years, I was blown away by how simple yet effective it was to keep customers at the centre of the entire process.
The Lean Product Lifecycle was based on lean, agile and design thinking principles. As with design thinking, it focuses on understanding the problem before creating the solution, understanding the customers, and building solutions iteratively, testing and pivoting as needed.
But it goes further than that – it looks at the full product lifecycle, from inception of the initial idea all the way to the end when you retire the product or service from the portfolio.
Full product lifecycle includes six main stages:
- Idea: In this stage, you use customer and market insights to generate as many ideas as possible before narrowing it down to the one idea you want to take forward.
- Explore: In this stage, you want to get out of the building and find out if your customers really do have the problem you think they have and whether it is worth solving.
- Validate: In this stage, you work on building and testing both a business model and a solution iteratively.
- Grow: At this point, you should have something in the market from which you can get real data. Your focus here is to increase your customer base, revenues and profits.
- Sustain: Your product/service is now considered a ‘cash cow’ – your job is to sustain revenue and profit while reducing costs and optimising operations.
- Retire: This is the point where you need to consider how to remove this product or service from your portfolio without causing distress to your customers. Is there a need for a replacement product/service?
In addition to delivering training sessions and facilitating hands-on workshops, I also provided 1:1 coaching sessions for product managers. It was in these sessions that I realised how much change management played a part in the implementation process. The coaching sessions were designed to help individuals to understand and use the new framework or process – but they were often about so much more than that: to help them to think and behave in a different way.
Barriers to implementing design thinking
As with any business at risk of being disrupted in the future, implementing a new way of working into your company, no matter how minor, is no small task. While you may get some eager early adopters on board, you will also most likely be met with resistance. After all, who really likes change?
Here are a few examples of resistance you might find:
- What a waste of time to have all these junior people working on ideas – the board can do that
- Why is that department here? Their focus is on dealing with the customers after launch
- How can we show customers that (low-fidelity) prototype – it doesn’t look professional
- How will I meet my targets if we continuously pivot?
- What will my boss think of me if I tell him what customers actually think?
- How will I ever get promoted if I bring up my concerns about the project?
At the heart of the questions above is fear. Those that might see a need for change might fear that rocking the boat will negatively impact their success within the company. And for people who have been doing things one way, often very successfully, for a long time might simply fear change. If it’s worked before, why change? Well, the world is changing – quickly – and if businesses don’t change, they will be disrupted in the future.
Overcoming the fear of change
To help people to really embrace design thinking or other innovation methodologies and frameworks without fear, they need to have ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace. In Amy Edmondson’s ‘The Fearless Organisation’ (2018, pp: 159), she outlines a Leader’s Toolkit for Building Psychological Safety, including:
- Setting the stage (setting expectations about failure and identifying what’s at stake)
- Inviting participation (acknowledging gaps, asking good questions, modelling intense listening, creating forms forums for input and providing guidelines for discussion)
- Responding productively (listening, acknowledging and thanking, looking forward, offering help, discussing, considering and brainstorming next steps)
Research from McKinsey shows that more diverse workforces perform better financially (Hunt, V, 2015). This isn’t surprising, as we know that divergent thinking from cross-functional, diverse groups of people are key to generating innovative ideas – and that it’s these ideas (alongside a sustainable business model) that will keep you in the game.
So, consider embedding design thinking into your innovation process and kill two birds with one stone by moving the dial on diversity and improving your bottom line.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carol is an innovation and product development leader, certified Lego ® Serious Play® facilitator and mentor with over 20 years’ experience in the education industry. She is currently working as an Innovation Consultant, coaching clients in using lean and design thinking tools to improve their business models and value propositions. Prior to that, she worked in the innovation space at Pearson PLC as a Global Product Lifecycle Implementation Director, responsible for implementing an award-winning product lifecycle framework and a new, lean way of working into teams across the globe. Alongside that role, she was also Head of Mentoring for Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) for Pearson UK, responsible for designing, delivering and championing mentoring programmes for women at Pearson in the UK. Under her headship, Pearson won Dynamic Mentoring Organisation of the Year through the Women Ahead/30% Club Cross-Company Mentoring Scheme in 2018.