When you think of design, what comes to mind? Maybe a good app experience, or a compelling advertisement. A particularly elegant tool, perhaps, or an architectural wonder.
All of the above is true, but design is much more. In fact, to quote master of modernist design Paul Rand, “everything is design.” Design impacts the way objects, environments function, how information moves, and even how the business operates. Design is the way we interact with other people, the tools we use to collaborate with one another. I encourage you to expand your view of design from the realm of products, user interfaces, and brand, and into processes. Design informs how we problem-solve together. And you don’t have to be a designer to think like one.
What is design thinking?
One might assume that design thinking is unstructured and theoretical, decipherable only by artists and capital-C Creatives. But even art requires form, if not a formula.
Design thinking helps organizations solve problems in a human-centered way. Ultimately, this leads to better services or tools, and workforces that are aligned, engaged, and collaborating. The design thinking paradigm is well-defined and broken into five distinct steps:
- Empathize with the people who have the problem
- Define the problem to be solved
- Ideate potential solutions (break out the whiteboard)
- Prototype several solutions and greet failure as a guide
- Test to see what works and iterate rapidly
The process is often depicted as a cycle to rinse and repeat, and that’s certainly my approach. For us, design thinking helps us build cohesively and maintain alignment while continuing to evolve at scale. The solutions you come up with today are unlikely to last forever, just like yesterday’s solutions don’t always work today. As your organization grows, and as your market evolves, design thinking is a useful framework to remain human-focused and primed for creative collisions.
Implementing design thinking can be as accessible as collaboration: bring multiple people together from different sides of the business to openly approach a problem from a number of angles. Openness being the operative word here: it’s essential to be open to new and strange ideas and to not negate a suggestion because it doesn’t immediately fit into what “feels” possible. Creativity often requires that we take a step back from technology and onto a blank page.
Apply design thinking to your business operations
Design-focused businesses perform, and there’s data to support it. The Design Management Institute found that design-centric businesses outperformed the S&P 500 by a staggering 211% over a 10 year period. That’s real ROI for thinking outside of the box.
And while the concept of applying design thinking to business is by no means new (check out this decade-old conversation from HBR on the topic), the practice could use more adoption. Decision making and innovation often defaults through the chain of command and companies remain largely hierarchical, even if many players within those organizations aspire towards a flatter, more dynamic structure.
A business doesn’t begin its life at the top of the design maturity model; processes and attitudes evolve incrementally, even if they are creative processes and attitudes. When moving from a traditional business structure, it takes practices to think like a designer (and think alongside designers). Fortunately, that means that even smaller applications of design thinking within a larger enterprise can accumulate and build into a tidal shift. It’s up to those who can influence operational processes to take the first steps.
Be customer-obsessed using design thinking
If you are truly customer-obsessed, nothing is more critical than delivering an ideal experience for each of your users. This is where the first step in Design Thinking, Empathy, really shines. Creating something truly tailored to your user requires you to step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective. Not only that, but you have to want to give them a good experience, to make their lives a little easier and more delightful.
It’s important to recognize that empathy should not only be applied to your customers - empathize with your colleagues and collaboration partners, too! This helps you best understand how each player can best contribute to the group’s efforts, what their priorities are, and how to work alongside them effectively. It also has the additional benefits of building a diverse culture of ideas and creativity.
Design thinking can start as quickly as saying, “hey we have a new client, they have this problem that isn’t on our product design roadmap, but we think other clients might experience. Can we come together and quickly find a solution that can get us started, and become a base for iteration and scale?” The critical next step is making sure the right colleagues hear the request, and that you truly hear what they have to say next.
Operational best practices for design thinking
Some of the best design thinking sessions I’ve seen are when you have not only the representatives from different departments, but you have the frontline leaders of those departments. They have a clear view of the pains each department feels, have a deeper understanding of where problems may lie than most senior leaders. These front-line managers can better share frameworks for success, and are more likely to be able to implement them because they, well, lead and bring individuals together.
Managers and team leaders also have the clearest perspective on the team players and dynamics. They should know best the motivations of each individual, how they tend to work, present ideas, ask for help. They also can lead the charge on building processes around information requests, knowledge sharing, and problem-solving.
It bears repeating that the design thinking process should be repeated. It’s all about testing, rapid feedback, and trying again. Remember that, much like an agile business model, design thinking provides both a framework for individual problem-solving sessions, as well as a larger mindset to encompass macro-goals within your organization. I recommend keeping a backlog of issues to track them as they arise, and setting goals to approach them on a regular cadence; every 3 weeks, quarterly, semi-annually, whatever makes sense for the complexity of the issues and the capacity of your teams. As your organization practices the process, it will become more efficient and productive.
Think of it as your creative calisthenics.