THE BLOG
10/12/2016 01:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2016

Time to Re-Think Design Thinking

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Olof Schybergson, CEO and Shelley Evenson, Head Of Organizational Evolution At Fjord, Design and Innovation From Accenture Interactive

Faced by growing competition and nimbler start-ups, many organizations are struggling. They suffer from a crisis of innovation. Unable to differentiate their brands, their products and their services in a digitally disruptive world, organizations’ future success depends on better managing and responding to change. Their very existence hinges on their ability to continuously and rapidly innovate. In order to do so successfully, they must place people at the heart of everything they do. They must harness the power of design.

Business leaders once distinguished business strategy from customer experience but, today, that mindset is changing: business strategy has become experience strategy. In fact, 89% of companies recently surveyed by Gartner claim that experience will be their primary basis for competitive advantage this year.

These shifts, along with growing evidence that design-centric companies are outperforming the market average, are fueling private and public sector interest in design – an agile and collaborative discipline that enables human-centered innovation to be brought to market, fast. The appetite for design thinking to reframe experience has never been greater.

More corporations are opening their eyes to the power of design thinking as a way to solve the crisis of innovation. They see disruptive companies like AirBnB get this. But misguided efforts -- however well-intentioned -- may do more harm than good. The truth is, design thinking has become broken in today’s digital age. The current interpretation of design thinking is often shallow and, as widely understood, not the answer. Simply put, design thinking is not enough. True success comes from building a complete design system, and no organization can build such a system on design thinking alone.

Here’s how to do it.

The Design Rule of 3

The fact is, design thinking only has value when combined with design doing and supported by a strong design culture. You can’t be good at only one or two. The Design Rule of 3 constitutes the three fundamental rules that underpin every successful design system employed by leading organizations, across sectors. When optimized and deployed in unison, organizations can effectively unlock the full potential of design to transform not only their own value and performance but peoples’ experiences of the products or services they provide.

Re-Thinking Design Thinking

Design thinking should bring a quest for truth, empathy with people, and a systematic reframing of the business challenge—zooming in and out of the opportunity space, and providing a strategic compass to help executives understand how to reorient their businesses.

Co-creation has to be integral. An organization must be willing and able to break down organizational silos to enable it. Fundamentally, design thinking must align a design perspective with business realities and technical possibilities.

Key Tenants of Modern-Day Design Thinking:

  1. Co-Creation
  2. Top Down, Bottom Up
  3. Design Prototyping
  4. Continuous Feedback & Testing

Measuring customer delight is essential, by employing Net Promoter Score (NPS) or an equivalent. At Fjord, we use our research-based Love Index to quantify and understand people’s engagement. The Love Index is an actionable tool that allows you to understand what people feel about your offering, and why.Mastery requires both C-suite and grassroots support; this simultaneous top-down and bottom-up commitment is essential for design thinking to become broadly embedded across an organization. Staff training and “learning by doing” project-based experiences will help get you there.

Crucially, successful design thinking must also include an element of making – early experience prototypes are important to validate thinking and align teams. Proponents of design thinking often get caught up in the methodologies (“how to get there”) versus the actual destination. Hands-on creation is often forgotten in today’s rush to apply design thinking organization-wide.

Financial software giant Intuit is a powerful example of an organization that has optimized design thinking and the context in which it lives.

VP and Executive Creative Director Suzanne Pellican oversees the company’s Design for Delight program that aims to inject design thinking into the company’s DNA. She’s trained and cultivated a community of 200 innovators who’ve run more than 1,000 workshops over five years to change the way people work across every function. By becoming design-driven, Intuit shifted from what Pellican has described as “the best run, no growth company in the Valley” to “a 30-year-old startup.”

Make no mistake, design thinking is crucial to improving everything from the value of a company’s offering to reimagining the employee experience. But misunderstanding what it is and how best to apply it risks sidelining design thinking into just another passing management fad. The reason is simple: design thinking is just the beginning -- a catalyst. What’s critical is to convert theory into reality to catalyze change. This is where design doing comes in.

Not Just Design Thinking, but Doing

Design doing is where design thinking meets the real world.

While design thinking should be embedded across the organization, design doing must involve design experts. It must be driven by people passionate about the craft of design across its every application, powered by design practices such as rapid iteration and real-world testing.

As the digitization of everything takes hold, the medium for design doing constantly evolves. Instead of designing for print or TV, today we design for mobile consumption and voice interaction. Instead of creating static products and websites, we design living services tailored for each individual, and powered by data. We are designing for experience in an ever-broadening context. This requires interdisciplinary teams of designers collaborating with experts as diverse as data scientists and developers.

Design thinking is nothing without design doing.

This broader context brings unprecedented complexity. Great design cuts through the clutter and helps prioritize and progressively reveal -- without dumbing down. The ability to simplify and make complex systems easy, engaging and intuitive for people is one of the critical contributions of good design (and great designers) at a time when the strategic business value of simplicity has never been greater.

An emotional connection to brands, products, and services is also crucial for success. Rather than focus narrowly on Minimum Viable Product, the aim should be to imagine and shape a Minimum Lovable Product.

Great design did not always come easy in the engineering-obsessed culture of Google. But after Larry Page took reigns as CEO in 2011, the company started crafting a common design language for experience that, for the first time, unified a vast collection of offerings into one coherent family. C-suite support, willingness to invest and strategic commitment created a program led by a core team of designers that enabled and applied great design doing across Google’s diverse initiatives. In this way, an everyone-for-themselves approach to design was replaced by design becoming a central guiding force for the organization.

The results speak for themselves. Google products are now perceived by many as having made the most strides at improving design, according to KPCB’s 2016 Design In Tech report. Some 64% of those surveyed rated Google as “most improved” when asked which tech companies were best improving their design. Only 33% said so of Apple.

Design doing can generate powerful results. But it can only do so within a considered and optimized organizational culture conducive to innovating and doing design well.

This brings us to the last rule in the Design Rule of 3.

Why Design Culture is All

Design culture is equally important as design thinking and design doing because it enables the others. Creating a design culture is no trivial undertaking. It requires organizational commitment and patience. This is where most organizations stumble. Brilliant people will fail if the environment in which they work doesn’t foster creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Fostering a Design Culture:

  1. Diverse teams including change agents
  2. Learning & evolution of individuals
  3. Flexible physical spaces

Given that great ideas emerge from diverse teams, change agents should be recruited as ambassadors and implementers of cultural transformation. Care must be taken to ensure they are set up for success.

Money alone will no longer secure the best designers. People want environments in which they are challenged, continuously learn and make impact. Our own Fjord Evolution team helps our clients create a learning design environment, a culture that will encourage the best design talent to come, learn, thrive -- and stay.

Flexible and open workspace is important to facilitate the best design work; and visual representations of ideas and their impact are a powerful tool. Design and innovation requires full mind and body engagement.

Photo: Werner Huthmacher, Fjord Berlin

It’s relatively easy to copy a good business idea today, and technology solutions are cheaper and more flexible than ever. Differentiation through a clever business model or a novel technology is challenging. Culture, however, is hard to emulate. A vibrant design culture can be the best and most sustainable differentiator for an organization.

Commerzbank, the global banking and financial services company, is one organization working to build such a culture through a considered deployment of design. Having initially considered buying a design consultancy to import a fully-fledged design function, it decided to change its culture from within.

Work is now underway to create an internal design function that will embody and enact the company’s new vision. The design space and design team is being built and managed by Fjord, as their strategic partner, until the bank’s management team takes over day-to-day operations. As they’re discovering, fostering a culture of design is an organizational and mindset shift that does not happen overnight. It requires commitment to a multi-year process, one that constantly evolves.

Benefits of an Effective Design System

In today’s world, digital may look like the driving force of change but, in reality, people are at the heart of digital. Design, by its very nature, creates a culture obsessed with people willing to listen and learn from multiple vantage points, ignore hierarchies and experiment until finding the best solution. This explains why human-centricity is what powers successful organizations, across sectors, and why design is a fundamental part of their DNA.

Harnessed properly, design can boost an organization’s performance and value because enduring customer relationships are a natural outcome. Other evidence points to a happier workforce too.

Bottom line -- mindset matters. Acquiring design thinking methods is a great first step, but must be followed through with changing how products and services are conceived and delivered, every day in every way. Effecting that transformation means simultaneously creating the right culture. Good intentions can only become reality if underpinned by a considered, effective design system built on solid foundations: the Design Rule of 3.

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