By Jeanne Liedtka. Many of us who have studied (and lived in) organizations see design thinking as just another problem solving approach that can add value to any manager’s tool kit. It may sound mysterious and fuzzy, but it is not. Especially in times as ambiguous and hard to predict as those facing businesses today, what differentiates design thinking from our more traditional analytic approaches is really grounded in its acknowledgment of uncertainty. Rather than avoiding risk (an impossibility if you want innovation), design thinking gives us the tools to actively manage it. Rather than deluding ourselves that yet another excel spreadsheet calculation can reduce the risk of an innovation’s failure, design thinking sends us in search of the only really solid data available when you are trying to create a new future: the real live people you are trying to create value for.
But introducing design thinking into an organization – especially a large one – isn’t necessarily easy. Based on my work with hundreds of managers who have tried to do this, I have concluded that having a smart strategy is key. To aid in creating that, I have a few suggestions:
1. Don’t debate – ACT!
Indulging in extended theoretical debates about design thinking and how it stacks up against traditional methods is a game you won’t win. You have to experience the process to get a sense of its power. We have found that even a small short hands-on session like the Stanford D School’s wallet exercise is worth far more than the fattest power point deck extolling the virtues of this approach.
2. Pick your challenge (“to design think or not to design think”)
Design thinking is no more the optimal tool for all management challenges than our usual analytic approaches. Using it doesn’t render all other forms of problem solving obsolete. It is merely a different problem-solving approach, one that is optimized for certain classes of problems. To decide whether you have a good opportunity for design thinking, ask yourself whether the problem or challenge you are facing is one where you are fairly sure that data from the past is not a good predictor of the future. Look for one involving real human beings that have resisted other methods. And find one with some real urgency behind it. And then frame your goals in language and metrics (lowering costs, increasing revenues, improving customer satisfaction) that make sense to the people who really care about solving the problem.
3. Think small
Resist the urge to supersize your early efforts. Yes – eventually you will need to ensure that the innovation opportunities you identify are sufficiently scalable to interest your organization. But the time to do that is later, after you’ve had one or two (or maybe even more) spins through the process and have eliminated as much uncertainty as possible. Build your design thinking muscles by tackling some small challenges first: fixing the employee orientation process, for example, or introducing a weekly customer report.
4. Select and manage your team carefully
The merits of multidisciplinary teams have been drilled into managers for a long time, yet we still confuse “diverse” with “politically inclusive.” For design thinking projects, it is a true diversity of experience you’re after. Think of your team’s design potential as bounded by the experience base of everybody on it. This is your collective wisdom. If you all look alike, you don’t have much to work with.
5. Manage your momentum
Momentum is an underappreciated resource on an innovation project. As long as a project is clicking along and people feel productive, there is a positive buzz. The number one momentum-creator is speed. But speed doesn’t happen by itself, any more than forming a committee creates action. Momentum is fueled by the energy produced when groups of people work together to identify, create, and test great new value-enhancing ideas – and then see the fruits of their labor.
There is an interesting tension between fast and slow in the design thinking process. Designers take the time to study a problem up front: their solutions tend to fall naturally out of this immersion in current reality. As managers, we are often reluctant to take that kind of time at the outset for thoughtful reflection: we are in a hurry to get to solutions. But in our haste to find quick answers, we find inadequate ones that never identify the real value creation opportunity at all – and that’s not really very efficient, is it?