In the era of disruption, it’s never been more important for organizations to imagine and take bold new paths. The public and private sectors, though, are rife with stories of struggles when it comes to staying ahead in the innovation race. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, of 30,000 new consumer products launched every year, approximately 95 per cent fail.
Good leaders understand the importance of trying new approaches to uncover opportunities and solve big problems. In their efforts to do so, many have been quick to adopt “design thinking.”
At its most basic level, design thinking provides a structured and iterative approach to creative problem-solving, putting users and customers — instead of our own organizations or a new technology — at the centre of the problem-solving process.
Design thinking helped Steve Jobs identify a breakthrough way for interacting with technology: the computer mouse came about when he hired IDEO, the company most famously associated with design thinking. Their iterative process began with cheap, low-fidelity versions of what would eventually become the first computer mouse, tested over and over with users to understand how they would react when navigating a computer.
More recently, design thinking helped GE Healthcare to transform the hospital experience for children and their families during MRIs.
When visiting a hospital to marvel at the installation of their most recent machine, what they observed was terrified children and concerned parents. Inside of GE’s boardrooms, the machine was a technological breakthrough. To patients, it was awful: Sterile rooms, large warning stickers, shades of beige and scary sounds.
Making MRIs fun for kids
It was then that GE turned to a design-driven approach, engaging children in imagining what would ultimately be a pivotal reboot of the MRI experience. Instead of a diagnostic imaging test, each MRI would be framed as great adventure: Visiting a pirate island, going to summer camp, or diving deep below the ocean.
The walls and the machines were covered in colourful skins that matched their adventure theme. The result? Patient satisfaction soared, sedation rates plummeted and the number of patients who completed an MRI each day significantly increased.
These examples aren’t the only ones. A recent five-year study by McKinsey & Company looked at 300 publicly listed companies in multiple countries across three industries and found that annual growth at the most design-focused organizations was 21 per cent, compared to the industry benchmark 12 to 16 per cent.
Despite this, the same study reported that more than 40 per cent of organizations still don’t talk to end users when designing products and services, and more than 50 per cent don’t have a way of assessing the success of the products created by their design teams.
Leaders are struggling to get beyond the 101 level of design thinking. They’ve read the books, run workshops and hired facilitators, but are left with uninspiring results and, worse, major setbacks in their missions to prove the value of design-led approaches to their companies’ executives.
The path to design thinking and innovation success, in fact, is littered with broken dreams and Post-it notes.
When design thinking works
For all these missteps, I’ve seen first-hand the power of design thinking when done right: when teams move beyond the Design Thinking 101 to deeply learn and embrace the skills that ultimately allow their organizations to get to new, viable, unexpected solutions that thwart disruption.
Senior leaders need to move beyond design thinking as it’s often introduced in non-design-savvy settings like business schools and get to deep design thinking that inspires and, ultimately, produces results. Here’s how:
1. Identify creative problem-solving skills
These skills go deeper and broader than many organizations are often willing to invest, but it’s important to recognize the nuance and mastery that’s required to actually produce creative and meaningful results. Based on research at OCAD U CO, a new venture by the Ontario College of Art and Design University that helps fuel business innovation, these skills include:
• Foresight: the ability to sense possible futures and emerging opportunity.
• Systems: the ability to see that everything is connected to everything else.
• Empathy: a deep understanding of people and their needs to move beyond what people say and instead what they do, think and feel.
• Ideation and testing: the courage and freedom to fail and take creative risks early and often, to de-risk big ideas.
• Respectful and inclusive design: the ability to engage diverse groups of people in safe, inspiring and productive environments.
2. Nurture and master these skills over time
It’s one thing to name the skills. It’s another to master them over time.
As design thinking has risen in popularity, it’s become easy to consider a two-day training boot camp as sufficient. This “one-and-done” approach is leading to an expectations-competence gap.
Instead, the most sophisticated organizations recognize that these skills need to be nurtured and mastered over time as a craft. Building the skill sets is a long-term journey that needs to be supported by the organization.
3. Create learning experiences
Everyone’s been through corporate training that, quite frankly, is downright boring. If organizations are going to move the needle on skill-building in design thinking, they need to think beyond the traditional classroom and Powerpoint presentations.
Instead, organizations should reimagine the integration of doing and learning. That is, bringing real world opportunities into environments where employees can learn the tools and methods of creative problem-solving, but also practise them in real time without the constraints and risks of being in the office.
A group of senior leaders from one of Canada’s largest property development firms recently spent one week learning, doing and reflecting on new design competencies while developing breakthrough ideas for how to reinvent their organizations with new products and services.
If the executive sponsor at that organization had suggested that these leaders simply spend time in our studio learning the theory of design thinking, she might not have been as successful.
By pairing training experiences with real-world business challenges, though, she found the recipe for success in which training doesn’t have to mean taking attention away from the business. This learn-by-doing approach is one that other organizations can model in their own efforts to create truly transformational change.
Training is critical to help public and private sector organizations thrive amid uncertain change.
To be successful, though, organizations need to invest the time to develop and nurture creative problem-solving skills that will inspire and ignite the imagination. That’s how they’ll ultimately build the resilient and innovative organizations of the future.