A Roadmap for Adopting ‘Design Thinking’-Driven Innovation

I was recently at the Service Design Network Global Conference (SDNGC) in Amsterdam, where I chatted with innovation practitioners and business leaders who had drunk the design thinking and lean innovation Kool-Aid but struggled to build enthusiasm for the approach internally. There was a general angst among the conference participants that they were the oddballs for evangelizing a misunderstood process that has uncertain outcomes. Ironically, the unexpected customer learnings and risk-mitigation potential of a design approach to growth resonate well with the goals of the c-suite. So how do you help your boss see the benefits?

We experience this dilemma and help our clients navigate it every day. Our very own Tim Ogilvie wrote a blog post about selling a design approach to your boss – here’s the tactic he suggests:

“When my son was 20 months old, he didn’t like green vegetables. He loved hamburger patties, though. So I put ground spinach into his hamburger patties. He loved them. Pretty soon there was more spinach than ground beef in those patties. He still loved them.

That’s how to sell design thinking to your boss.

I’m not saying lie to her. I’m saying, tell her the truth, but omit the parts that may seem important to you but may not be important to her. To you, the excitement of design thinking is all the human-centered design methods you’ve discovered. To her, these unfamiliar elements are a flashing red light that says ‘DANGER!’ ”

So why is a methodology centered on customer empathy so scary to business leaders?

  • Messy data – They don’t trust a process that doesn’t produce concrete data that they can trust and invest in.
  • High uncertainty – “I don’t know yet” is a perfectly acceptable answer in the design process, but not one that business leaders with a low tolerance for uncertainty like to hear. As with anything new, there’s a learning curve to see how the design thinking methodology and mindset can be applied to your organization
  • Frequent debate (to iterate) – It requires key stakeholders to come to the table sooner and more often than they’re used to. It’s a more iterative way of decision making that requires quicker feedback loops.
  • Unclear pathway to an ROI – especially early-on when you’re focused more on validating a consumer need before sizing the market and designing and testing the business model that will address it.
  • Design is a brand new mindset – embracing ambiguity and failure, prototyping and iterating, empathizing with user needs; all things that sometimes conflict with a traditional business mindset.

Business leaders see these aspects of a design approach as a threat to their way of navigating risk and meeting short-term growth goals. However, that aversion doesn’t help to explain why design and innovation consultancies are being acquired by global industry leaders. That’s because these companies see the benefits of a human-centered design approach to growth. They want to bring those capabilities in-house in order to explore new services, business models and digital experiences that grow their bottom-line and deepen relationships with their customers. 

That being said, every organization can’t just go buy a design firm. The onus of bringing design thinking and lean innovation into your organization falls on inspired individuals to evangelize the mindset and methodology.

So, how do you go about bringing a human-centered innovation approach to your organization, while juggling your regular job responsibilities and battling skepticism from your peers?

Truthfully, there’s no silver bullet – it requires a process of showing, selling and delivering results through a human-centered design approach to discovering customer needs and translating those into potential business opportunities for your business.

Show – Before they can make decisions, your boss likes to see evidence of success and relevance to the types of problems they are wrestling with.

Questions you have to address for your boss:

  • What is design thinking?
  • What does it mean for us?
  • Can we trust it?

Sell – After successfully showing your stakeholders how a design approach can open up new and unexpected growth possibilities, you can begin to advocate for projects where you can apply it.

Questions you have to address for your boss:

  • How can we use it for an upcoming project?
  • How are we going to get people and time?
  • When can we expect to see results?
  • What’s the ROI?

Deliver – Now you have to put your money where your mouth is and execute the project, while continuing to manage the expectations of your stakeholders.

Questions you have to address for your boss: 

  • What are we going to do with all of this data?
  • Oh, so how are we going to tackle all of that?
  • How can we mitigate risk?

What has your experience been embedding a human-centered design approach in your organization? Are you trying to bring this type of thinking to your organization, but struggling? Let’s talk about it! Drop me a line at mjohnson@peerinsight.com.

We navigate the internal tides of ‘design thinking’-driven innovation with our clients everyday. Learn more about how we do it here!

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