Design thinking has become increasingly popular since the publication of IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s book, Change by Design, in 2009. Although familiarity with design thinking isn’t yet ubiquitous throughout the professional services world, most agencies and B2C companies with younger workforces have been exposed to it. Its focus on innovation and its proven ability to identify and solve sometimes difficult to understand consumer problems has made brought it acceptance within the business community. Indeed, Brown – an industrial designer by training – now contributes at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Who would have thought that an industrial designer would be able to edge their way into a tight-knit community of MBAs, bankers, and lawyers? But, thanks to the design thinking revolution, creatives now have a place in business.
I’m a huge proponent of design thinking, having seen how effective it can be at providing tangible solutions to sometime ethereal problems. Design thinking gurus, however, are mostly found in branding and design firms. Thus, if your company is looking to use design thinking to solve a problem, you’ll most likely have to hire an expensive agency like IDEO, Frog, Continuum, and the like. Although this may make economic sense for larger companies, smaller companies often can’t afford to retain team of pricey consultants, researchers, and designers every time a challenge crops up. An alternative is to build design thinking into the culture of an organization so that employees can address design problems themselves rather than repeatedly hire outside help. While organizations won’t always have the resources to tackle every design-related problem, creating a culture of design thinking will help foster innovation and problem solving without added expenditures. One of the hallmarks of design thinking is the empathy that it espouses for users or consumers of a product and many agencies that employ design thinking will do extensive qualitative research to put themselves in the shoes of the audience. But, who better to employ design thinking than employees, who often know a company’s processes and products more intimately than upper management. This solution allows organizations can build design thinking into their culture, so that employees are constantly innovating on behalf of the company. Think Total Quality Management.
“build design thinking into the culture of an organization so that employees can address design problems themselves rather than repeatedly hire outside help.”
The key to constructing a design thinking culture – or any culture for that matter – is social architecture, the creation of systems for the purpose of influencing behavior. Like design thinking, social architecture is concerned with designing environments to improve outcomes. The primary difference is that social architecture is solely concerned with perceptions and social interaction, whereas design thinking is most often applied in the design of physical products and spaces. So, in many ways, what we’re talking about here is using design thinking to design a culture of design thinking. Sounds great, but how is it done?
- Engage: the first step, which sounds obvious but is often overlooked, is to convince employees that many opportunities for improvement exist and design thinking can help capitalize on them. To do this, the merits of design thinking must be clearly communicated along with the benefit that the approach can have for them, e.g. optimized workspaces mean more productivity and less stress, better processes mean more safety and less inefficiency. The message: building design thinking into the business will be good for everyone.
- Equip: once you have your employees on board, they will have to be equipped with the observational and analytical tools necessary to identify problems and innovate solutions. Although things like workshops can help inform and equip employees with basic design thinking tools, nobody can force employees to use them. Fortunately, in most cases, employees are actually enthusiastic about having the opportunity to solve design problems. In fact, if you ask your employees, they probably already have mental lists of issues that could be addressed through design thinking.
- Empower: giving employees the autonomy to speculate and innovate is critical to fostering a culture in which design thinking can flourish. Inculcating design thinking into an organization at all levels depends on the freedom of employees to experiment, both mentally and physically, with workspaces, systems, and processes. Giving them the latitude to try new things, even if they fail, is essential to empowering employees in a way that will result in meaningful insights and innovations. It’s also important that managers create channels of communication between themselves and employees so that new ideas – ideas that are generated by the people on the front lines – get the attention they deserve. Some type of incentive regime that rewards innovation is also helpful in motivating employees to apply design thinking in their daily work. That being said, taking employee input seriously and providing the funding necessary to implement employee generated ideas, signals that they’re opinions are respected and valued – a powerful incentive in itself.
- Evaluate: finally, it’s important to continuously evaluate any type of cultural program. When trying to drive design thinking across an organization, it’s just as important to evaluate the ideation process among employees as it is to evaluate the success of their ideas. Optimizing the process by which employees analyze, collaborate, and ideate will ideally lead to more successful ideas. Thus, only measuring the success of ideas might not be the best form of evaluation. Rather, evaluating the process that employees are using – which can be done in a number of qualitative and quantitative ways – will likely provide more apropos insights that can help gauge the success of the program
The goal in all of this is to create a social system where employees feel comfortable challenging the status quo and collaborating with other employees to generate their own solutions to workspace, process, and product problems. This requires designing a system that fosters constant innovation, that can build design thinking into every process. This task can be daunting, but once achieved can help organizations become inherently innovative. After all, why hire outside firms to solve your business problems when the people that know your business best are already inside it.