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When the Odds Are Against Design Thinking | Design Thinking Strategy

Design thinking isn’t new. It endeavors to genuinely understand your customers’ wants, needs, limitations, and issues to build innovative products that solve real challenges.

A group of people engaged in strategic consulting around a table.

A quick Google search will yield a plethora of household names like Airbnb, Slack, Lego, and Amazon that use Design Thinking. According to McKinsey, organizations that fall within the top quartile of the McKinsey Design Index outperformed industry benchmark growth by as much as two to one. Yet, despite all the years of positive press around Design Thinking stages, many organizations are still hesitant to implement this approach to innovation and problem-solving.  

It’s not “us versus them” or even “us on behalf of them.” For a design thinker, it has to be “us with them.”

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO

If you want to introduce Design Thinking at your company, here a few steps to help ensure your success even when the odds are against you.  

1. Empathy

“Never tell me the odds …” – Han Solo, The Empire Strikes Back

When your company is reluctant to support Design Thinking, your job is to help them see the potential. The design thinking process begins with empathy, and so should you. First, meet with leaders and coworkers to understand their objections. Their reasons for being hesitant may range from thinking it’s only about design to having difficulty measuring ROI. Once you understand their objections, you can share research like the 2018 Forrester study for IBM on its Design Thinking practice. Here, the results, including reducing design time, fewer defects, increased profits, new customers, and faster time-to-market, are real and quantified.

Another challenge you may face is a ‘no’ culture where new ideas face an uphill battle due to politics and risk aversion. Regardless, be curious and ask questions. Uncover how anchored your managers and coworkers are to their objections, and then work to assuage their feelings around Design Thinking.  

2. Find a Design Thinking Expert

“Attitude reflects leadership.” – Julius Campbell, Remember the Titans

Find a true Design Thinking advocate in the organization. Sometimes this is easy. There may be an executive in your company that already speaks Design Thinking—most of the time, discovering that leader can be challenging. Your future captain may not even know the words Design Thinking yet.  

Here are some qualities to look for in a potential Design Thinking champion. They think about products, not projects, and are highly collaborative and empathetic with a genuine interest in customer experience. They are less risk-averse and embrace ambiguity. They understand the non-linear nature of creative problem solving but are also pragmatic. Once you find a potential leader connect with them over coffee or lunch. Learn about their aspirations and how you can help each other reach your goals.

3. Pick the Right Project

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity”– Steve Jobs

Picking the right first project is critical to being successful and building momentum. Strategize with your leader and pick something small that ties back to a clear business goal. Companies like Airbnb and Slack that used Design Thinking processes early on before they were famous did so with one clear idea in mind … to make payroll. The stakes will likely not be so high for your first project. A small and manageable project that you can own from start to finish will be a win-win for your entire team.

4. Assemble the Team

“This is no ‘I’ in team, but there is in win.” – Michael Jordan

With a project in hand, it’s time to build the team. Go out of your way to recruit from all parts of the organization: front office, back office, technical, non-technical. Breakthrough the silos by including everyone in the process and demonstrate the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Remember the 80s movie The Breakfast Club? In that film, after spending a Saturday in detention together, five kids, who had never talked to each other in school, realized they had more in common than they thought. Bring together a cross-functional team and form your own breakfast club.  

Getting Started

“A lot of hard work is hidden behind nice things.” – Ralph Lauren

Once your team is assembled and your project is chosen, you’re ready to start the Design Thinking process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This may represent a new way of thinking for your team. The workshops and brainstorming sessions that are part of this process may feel uncomfortable at first. You will need to learn to fail fast and often. That’s ok! When you finish, use KPIs to measure success. Remember to give credit where credit is due: your team.  

According to Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Take pride in the fact that you accomplished the unthinkable but don’t stop there. Become an evangelist for Design Thinking. When a company instills Design Thinking, teams learn to work together to find elegant solutions to complex problems. All voices matter regardless of job title or experience. This egalitarian mindset reduces the power distance by requiring humility and a genuine willingness to have one’s ideas and assumptions challenged. A culture steeped in Design Thinking will lead to seismic shifts at your organization.  

Innovation starts with a conversation.

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