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A powerful approach for innovation

David Norbury and I sat down to create a summary of Design Thinking. This approach has transformed how I approach complex problems and never fails to unleash creativity for the teams that I coach.

We break down the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the critical factors for success.

Why should we care about Design Thinking?

In an age where the need for constant adaptation is upon us, adopting Design Thinking can provide a genuine competitive advantage. It’s a powerful framework that allows you to explore your future potential in a simple, methodical way.

What is it?

The notion of design as a way of thinking goes back to the early 70’s, while Stanford’s d.school, and later IDEO, substantially developed the concept in the 80’s and 90’s.[1]

Design Thinking provides a step-by-step approach to develop viable new products, services, or even solutions to internal business problems. It’s brilliantly suited to addressing what Carol S. Dweck calls ‘wicked problems’, i.e. those that appear impossibly intractable.

The approach is about practical exploring rather than trying to conceptualise the future.  It starts with grounding within the knowledge of existing teams and processes.  Ideas are tried out in prototypes.

According to the Darden model, it’s made up of four key phases. The first two – ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ –  are about ‘divergent thinking’: exploring many possibilities and solutions, the latter – ‘what wows’ and ‘what works’ – are about ‘convergent thinking’: narrowing focus to a prototype and experiments within the field.

“What is?”

In this phase, teams exploit the knowledge existing in the organisation across the value chain. It’s about getting buried in the current ways of doing things to surface the known problems.

It requires empathising with individuals involved and getting clear on their issues without judgement. Sankey diagrams can be a useful tool in this phase.

“What if?”

The aim of this stage is to come up with as many ideas as possible. 100 ideas is OK. Anything is constructive. No wrongs answers, giving voice to everybody. Wild dreams, humble incremental improvements, it’s all good.

During this stage, it’s vital to remove the power dynamics. Teams riff using Post-Its to get ideas up on the wall, bubble maps, groupings. Again, all areas of the business are represented.

This is about working and learning as a system. This avoids analysts coming up with solutions in a silo. This phase generates insight.

“What wows?”

Now we’re narrowing down ideas into the potentially viable ones – ideas to wow. Here the team build prototypes; these could be slidedecks, clay models, Lego structures, digital mock-ups.

The team quickly gets these prototypes in front of customers to test them out. Here it’s about failing fast and getting the organisational learning that comes from failure.

“What works?”

This is point where we ask:

  • Can we make money out of us?
  • Which of these things would work based on the constraints in the business?
  • If it won’t work now, when might it work?

If a team has found something that they think works, now is the time to engage in multi-stage planning.

Keys to success

When employing Design Thinking, this is what we’ve found to work:

  • Don’t debate, experiment
  • Chose a sense of urgency, a critical problem
  • Manage energy not time
  • Fast decision making
  • Just good enough – sharing ideas early
  • Let others validate your ideas
  • Speak truth about failures and what is learned

If you’d like to understand more about Design Thinking, don’t hesitate to get in touch with David Norbury here, or Richard Atherton here.