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Making the Case for Design Thinking

Today's post, the first in a two-part-series on design thinking, comes to us from Cecily Tyler, Program Manager, Human Insights at Ultimate Kronos Group (UKG). Since earning her M.P.A. at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2016, Cecily has served as a Fellow at the Harvard Innovation Labs at the Harvard Business School, and at the Innovation Field Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

The first time I participated in a design thinking lab, I left a skeptic. Money and awards were given, press releases and articles puffed up pride, but, in the end, none of the work became actionable. And if I had to hear the term, ”œtry early, fail fast” one more time… 

I was not drinking the design thinking Kool-Aid.

What is Design Thinking?

If you are not familiar with the term design thinking, its principles are age-old and have been used by inventors, artists, writers, teachers, scientists, and engineers forever.  

The framework of design thinking, being taught and implemented in businesses and organizations globally, starts with specifically focusing on developing an understanding of the lived experience of individuals–the exact individuals for whom we are designing a product or service. It asks us to value the discipline of setting aside biased thinking, judgmental observation, and perceptions, to effectively collaborate in our thinking and to become curious in a new light. It is in this collective mindset that organizations have found pathways to innovation.

Skepticism of Design Thinking

So, back to me being a skeptic of design thinking. I wasn't alone. According to a report from Capgemini way back in 2015, ”œthe vast majority of innovation labs – approximately 90% – fail to deliver on their promise.” Indeed, skeptics have a legitimate argument against design labs.

Despite this, the labs continue to pop up and, adding to the confusion, the term ”œdesign thinking” is often used interchangeably with other terms like hackathons, research hubs, incubators, social innovation, innovation (field) labs, innovation challenges and anything else that supposedly means new, novel, bigger or better.

Along with organizations in the public and non-profit sectors, private sector heavy hitters like Nike, Home Depot, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, Walmart, and Facebook are all a part of the growing number of enterprises that have launched their own internal design labs in the past few years, with varying results.

Natasha Iskander wrote in the Harvard Business Review, ”œskepticism about design thinking has now begun to seep out onto the pages of business magazines and educational publications…[as] little more than basic commonsense, repackaged and then marketed for a hefty consulting fee.”

Seeing the Value in Design Thinking

So how did I move from skeptic to believer? Well, in 2016, I was invited to participate in a public sector design thinking lab called the Innovation Field Lab. Here I saw the effective use of the design thinking framework that also factored in the accelerator lab principles needed to create real, actionable outcomes from economic and social uncertainty. It was here that I discovered design thinking as a powerful tool: the teams in the lab created actionable, implementable processes and products that changed the lives of residents in five gateway Greater Boston cities. The success stories came to light at quantifiable and inspiring levels. Years later, the work continues to affect the lives of these residents. 

After working as an innovator for the past 6+ years, I have seen and studied how design thinking accelerator labs foster innovation and yield actionable outcomes, no matter the sector, no matter the name of the lab. Design thinking has clearly been effective when it comes to addressing complex challenges.

In the private sector, engineering new practices for process, product, supply chain and marketing is vital for any business to sustain, profit and thrive. In the Harvard Business Review article, ”œWhy Design Thinking Works,” Jeanne Liedtka shares the results of her seven-year study that looks at 50 business projects in multiple sectors. ”œI have seen that…design thinking…has the potential to do for innovation exactly what TQM [total quality management] did for manufacturing: unleash people's full creative energies, win their commitment, and radically improve processes… But what people may not understand is the subtler way that design thinking gets around the human biases (for example, rootedness in the status quo) or attachments to specific behavioral norms (”œThat's how we do things here”) that time and again block the exercise of imagination.”

So, yeah. I admit it: these days, I'm definitely drinking the design thinking Kool-Aid.

Next time I'll write about how to develop a design thinking framework to use in your own life.

Share your insights!

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