Design Thinking has become a well-known approach for solving problems—used now in an array of industries and businesses—but it can mean a lot of different things in different contexts and to different people. The set of activities underpinning Design Thinking have traditionally been used for product development and refinement. However, through working alongside clients and business partners with various functions and backgrounds, we’ve found that Design Thinking can be effective with almost any type of business problem or scenario.
Ultimately, Design Thinking provides value to an organization by encouraging both intuitive styles of thinking and more analytical styles of thinking. By bringing these types of thinking together, often physically into one room, it helps companies create a competitive advantage grounded in sustainable business practices.
This type of intuitive and analytical thinking is important because most markets are reaching ever higher levels of competition, both from new market entrants and from existing global players. As your industry is flooded with an overwhelming number of competitors, genuine methods of innovation become more necessary for standing out and attracting customers.
Meaningful Up and Down the Organization
To implement Design Thinking in different departments and business units within your organization, sponsorship from leadership is key. There are plenty of CEOs and corporate thought leaders who are championing Design Thinking, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the de facto, problem-solving toolkit at most organizations.
With that in mind, the activities associated with Design Thinking allow for, and even encourage, line employees to pilot meetings and design sessions involving their colleagues. Think about regularly scheduled meetings to address customer concerns or internal process mapping. While these meetings may follow a standard format or cadence, is there room to present a new paradigm to spur your colleagues’ thoughts in a different direction?
There is significant value in applying the Design Thinking mindset to normal business settings. This value is apparent when you think about the nature of the organization you work for; that is, the way the organization overlays processes, politics, and mundane tasks (e.g., managing your email). This overlay, or “pilling up,” tends to overwhelm individual efforts regarding change and effectiveness. As most of us have experienced, a huge portion of “the every day” is taken up by activities and tasks born out of inefficient organization design and ineffective work practices. This is exactly what makes going to work feel like a grind for many employees.
Without even formally adopting Design Thinking as a solution to a specified problem, utilizing a Design Thinking mindset can be incredibly powerful as a way to reorient some of these work practices and processes. While it is certainly most impactful when used in a collaborative environment, the emphasis on thinking hard about framing problems, prototyping possible solutions, testing them out, and trying the whole process again to move closer to an optimal outcome can obviously improve any aspect of any human endeavor. In fact, piloting the approach in small ways in and around your cubicle can be a great platform for demonstrating its value higher up the organizational chain of command.
Unexpected Applications of Design
Not only can anyone use Design Thinking to tackle work problems, but the paradigm can also be used to approach and solve nearly any kind of problem. One example of this is organizational policy and rule creation. Often, such rules are handed down by the leadership, without a consultative approach to understanding exceptions, use cases, or onerous new rules.
Design Thinking can help in this situation by pulling a wide variety of stakeholders in a room together to talk through and model different approaches. This provides a forum for diverse stakeholder viewpoints, and the emphasis on testing and learning can encourage piloting new policies in part of the organization, then refining based on feedback. An early and iterative feedback process puts a spotlight on weaknesses and blind spots in any kind of top-down idea, helping ensure that the ultimate decision is applicable and useful to the organization, instead of serving as a hindrance.
Low-employee engagement and high turnover rates are great examples of this principle in action. Design Thinking can be applied to these types of challenges by encouraging an organization to build empathy with employees, which allows them to better understand the nuances of the employees’ experiences. This can be especially important in the context of a recent M&A or downsizing event—key moments in the lives of any organization that can negatively impact employee morale.
There are many tools in the Design Thinking toolkit that address these kinds of organizational challenges. These approaches can create a bridge of trust between line employees and leadership, helping organizations better understand both their employees’ perspectives and the underlying issues behind their high turnover rates.
Michele is Aspirant's Director of Marketing & Innovation, and is a senior marketer and facilitator with 25 years of extensive experience in brand management, strategy development, Design Thinking, and innovation. She works with various corporations and non-profit businesses as a consultant to help them grow their business through strong strategy, marketing plans, and skills development. She has worked with companies in the Fortune 100 and Global 1000 as well as mid-sized companies in a range of industries, with a focus on healthcare.