In a Word The need for twenty-first century mindsets and protocols has sparked interest in design thinking. That is a human-centered, prototype-driven process for the exploration of new ideas that can be applied to operations, products, services, strategies, and even management.
A Design for Life
In a world of continuous flux, where markets mature faster and everyone is affected by information overload, organizations regard innovation, including management innovation, as the prime driver of sustainable competitive advantage. To unlock opportunities, some of them use mindsets and protocols from the field of design to make out unarticulated wants and deliberately imagine, envision, and spawn futures.
Design is more important when function is taken for granted and no longer helps stakeholders differentiate. In the last five years, design thinking has emerged as the quickest organizational path to innovation and high-performance, changing the way creativity and commerce interact.1
In the past, design was a downstream step in the product development process, aiming to enhance the appeal of an existing product. Today, however, organizations ask designers to imagine solutions that meet explicit or latent needs and to build upstream entire systems that optimize customer experience and satisfaction.
Therefore, although the term “design” is commonly understood to describe an object (or end result), it is in its latest and most effective form a process, an action, and a verb, not a noun: essentially, it is a protocol to see, shape, and build. Lately, design approaches are also being applied to infuse insight into the heart of campaigns and address social and other concerns.2
The proper study of mankind is the science of design.
defined design as the changing of existing conditions into preferred ones.4
Design thinking, then, is about using the sensibilities and methodologies that characterize designers to create new ideas, new alternatives, new choices, and new viabilities that satisfy stakeholder desires. It is fundamentally abductive,5
even if designers still induce patterns and deduce answers.
Stemming from abductive reasoning, design thinking is empathic, personal, subjective, interpretive, integrative, experimental, synthetic, pictorial, dialectical, opportunistic, and optimistic. It is a frame of mind for problem solving that can balance legitimate needs for stability, efficiency, and predictability with the requirement for spontaneity, experimentation, and serendipity. In the conceptual age,6
it is a “people first” approach to the full spectrum and minutiae of innovation activities that has applications in operations, products, services, strategies, and even management.7
If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said “a faster horse”.
Inside the Design Thinking Process
Design thinking revolves around three key phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.8
During these phases, problems are framed, questions—also about questions—are asked, ideas are generated, and answers are obtained. The phases are not linear; they can take place concurrently and can also be repeated to build up ideas along the continuum of innovation. The design thinking process allows information and ideas to be organized, choices to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained as depicted in Roger Martin’s three-stage funnel.9
Design thinking is, inherently, a prototyping process powering deep understanding of what people want in their lives as well as what they like (or not) about the way that is made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported. To this end, multidisciplinary teams of T-shaped individuals10
are encouraged to fail often to succeed sooner through trial and error: innovations do not arise from incremental tweaks.
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
By the same token, design is never done: a market is always changing, least of all because good ideas are copied, and design must change with it. Design success is the integration of design thinking into an organization: at that level, it becomes a powerful tool to solve unpredictable problems.
To Heather Fraser, the greatest payout of design thinking lies in the design of strategies and business models for organizational performance that creates both economic and human value. Broadening the definition of design, she argues that it can be the path to understanding stakeholder needs, the tool for visualizing new solutions, and the process for translating cutting-edge ideas into effective strategies (Fraser 2009
). Heather Fraser, from whose work the following draws, sees three iterative gears in business design. Anchored in the needs of stakeholders, they apply deep user understanding to stimulate high-value conceptual visualizations and extract from these the strategic intent needed to reform business models.
Gear One: Deep User Understanding The first step is to turn the telescope around to reframe the organization and view its business entirely through the eyes of the customer (and, of course, other critical stakeholders). It is necessary to look beyond the direct use of an organization’s products or services to the contexts in which they are located, in terms of the activities surrounding their utilization, to gain deeper insight and broader behavioral and psychographic perspectives. It is also critical to understand the “whole person” engaged in any given activity—not just what they do, but how they feel and how their needs surrounding their activities link to other parts of their life.
Gear Two: Concept Visualization With renewed empathy and a broader set of criteria for innovation serving as springboard, creativity can be unleashed and move through multiple-prototyping and concept enrichment, ideally with users. It is vital to look beyond what is to what could be, using imagination to generate altogether new-to-the-world solutions. At this stage, there are no constraints, only possibilities. Engaging all functions and disciplines on the team infuses ideas into the process, fortifies team alignment, and prepares the traction that will lock down strategies and activate them later.
Gear Three: Strategic Business Design With well-defined, user-inspired solutions at hand the third gear aligns broad concepts with future reality. This entails prototyping business models to integrate their parts and assess the impact of the activity system as a whole. It is imperative to identify what will drive the success of the solutions; prioritize what activities an organization must undertake to deliver related strategies; define relationships strategically, operationally, and economically; and determine what net impacts the new business models will have.
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