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Design Thinking, Innovation, and Business Success

December 14, 2016


Half a dozen years ago, I wrote, “Innovation often starts when an individual with an inquisitive mind bumps up against a challenge and asks why current solutions to that challenge are inadequate. The next step in the innovative process is when that same individual creates something that works better. Sometimes the answer is simply a matter of coming up with a better design.”[1] Although I didn’t spell it out, what I was talking about is called “design thinking.” According to the Fast Company staff, “The methodology commonly referred to as design thinking is a proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results.”[2]


What is Design Thinking?


The Fast Company staff asserts design should be thought of as a verb (i.e., an action word) rather than a noun (i.e., a result). Design thinking, they write, is “a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities.” According to the staff, design thinking consists of four key elements:


1. Defining the problem. “Sounds simple but doing it right is perhaps the most important of all the four stages. Another way to say it is defining the right problem to solve. Design thinking requires a team or business to always question the brief, the problem to be solved. To participate in defining the opportunity and to revise the opportunity before embarking on its creation and execution. Participation usually involves immersion and the intense cross examination of the filters that have been employed in defining a problem. In design thinking observation takes center stage. Observation can discern what people really do as opposed to what you are told that they do. Getting out of the cube and involving oneself in the process, product, shopping experience or operating theater is fundamental.” If you want a better idea of what this first step could involve, watch the following video clip of an ABC Nightline episode showing IDEO’s “deep dive” technique for thinking through a problem.



The first step “also requires cross functional insight into each problem by varied perspectives as well as constant and relentless questioning, like that of a small child, Why?, Why? Why? Until finally the simple answers are behind you and the true issues are revealed.”


2. Creating and Considering Many Options. “Even the most talented teams and businesses sometimes fall into the trap of solving a problem the same way every time. Especially when successful results are produced and time is short. Design thinking requires that no matter how obvious the solution may seem, many solutions be created for consideration. And created in a way that allows them to be judged equally as possible answers. Looking at a problem from more than one perspective always yields richer results.” The cross functional insight discussed in step one can help ensure that the problem is looked at from different perspectives and that different options are raised. In his book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson talks about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. Johansson drew his inspiration from the Medici family, whose wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Using a cross functional team to address a problem can help lift the pall of a “same way every time” culture.


3. Refining Selected Directions. “A handful of promising results need to be embrace and nurtured. Given a chance to grow protected from the evil idea-killers of previous experience. Even the strongest of new ideas can be fragile in their infancy. Design thinking allows their potential to be realized by creating an environment conducive to growth and experimentation, and the making of mistakes in order to achieve out of the ordinary results.” I’m a big fan of prototyping and proof of concept projects. The FC staff suggests this stage may take a while because experimentation and prototyping could require several iterations to get it right.


4. Picking the Winner and Executing. “At this point enough road has been traveled to insure success. It’s the time to commit resources to achieve the early objectives. The byproduct of the process is often other unique ideas and strategies that are tangential to the initial objective as defined. Prototypes of solutions are created in earnest, and testing becomes more critical and intense. At the end of stage 4 the problem is solved or the opportunity is fully uncovered.”


Design Thinking and Business Success


Linda Naiman (@lindanaiman), Founder of Creativity at Work, reports, “Design-led companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Whirlpool have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by an extraordinary 219%, according to a 2014 assessment by the Design Management Institute.”[3] I suggest the reason for this success is that design thinking ensures customers are the focus of products and services. Ramachandran S, a Principal Consultant at Infosys BPO, asserts, “Design thinking if widely adopted will [result in a] cultural transformation all across the enterprise in every function and department to understand the customer perspective.”[4] Understanding the customer perspective is (as explained above) the first step in design thinking and the foundation upon which all innovation builds. Kristen Nozell (@kristen_n), a strategist at Red Peak Branding, explains, “Every product, service and experience we encounter in the world is designed, and as such, design influences the way we live — our behaviors are products of our products. Design can encourage healthy (or unhealthy) habits, foster sustainable lifestyles (or not), and make us feel happy (or frustrated). Thoughtful design takes this important influence into account, and thoughtful designers carefully consider the implications on consumers’ behavior and habits when they craft brands, objects and interfaces.”[5]


Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen (@claychristensen) also believes a customer focus is critical for business success. His latest thinking is detailed in a book entitled Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. He and his coauthors, Karen Dillon (@KarDillon), Taddy Hall (@taddyhall), and David S. Duncan, use the Theory of Jobs to Be Done as the foundation of their thinking. According the book’s introduction, that theory helps companies understand their “customers’ struggle for progress and then [creates] the right solution and attendant set of experiences to ensure [they] solve [their] customers’ jobs well, every time.” They add, “This is a book about progress. Yes, it’s a book about innovation — and how to get better at it. But at is core, this book is about the struggles we all face to make progress in our lives.” In many ways, the Theory of Jobs to Be Done, reflects design thinking. Nozell, for example, observes that good design thinking addresses customer pain points. She writes, “Some of the best innovations make pain points at least a bit less painful.”




Olof Schybergson (@olof_s), co-founder and CEO of Fjord, asserts design thinking’s empathetic perspective is fundamental to business success. He told an interviewer, “Going direct to consumers is a big disruptor. … There are new opportunities to gather data and insights about consumer behavior, likes, dislikes….Those who have data and an appetite for innovation will prevail.”[6] The Fast Company staff concludes, “Design thinking describes a repeatable process employing unique and creative techniques which yield guaranteed results — usually results that exceed initial expectations. Extraordinary results that leapfrog the expected. This is why it is such an attractive, dynamic and important methodology for businesses to embrace today.” Naiman adds, “Design thinking offers a structured framework for understanding and pursuing innovation in ways that contribute to organic growth and add real value to your customers.”


[1] Stephen DeAngelis, “The Future of Innovation,” Enterra Insights, 7 January 2010.
[2] Staff, “Design Thinking… What is That?Fast Company, 20 March 2006.
[3] Linda Naiman, “Design Thinking as a Strategy for Innovation,” Creativity at Work.
[4] Ramachandran S, “If only ‘design thinking’ had been applied…” LinkedIn, 25 August 2016.
[5] Kristen Nozell, “Thoughtful Design Will Drive Future Innovation,” AdvertisingAge, 18 March 2016.
[6] Jon Kolko, “Design Thinking Comes of Age,” Harvard Business Review, September 2015.

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