April 12, 2018

Design Thinking For Innovation

By Sheldon Levine

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Many times in the past we have talked about how companies can create the conditions to allow intrapreneurs to show themselves and put their ideas forward and make them happen. Today, we’d like to share some thinking around how those intrapreneurs and their companies can take that one idea or problem and turn it into something truly innovative.

There are many ways that companies and innovation labs take simple ideas and turn them into something truly transformative. One of these ways that has been gaining popularity over the last 10 or so years is the concept of design thinking.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of design thinking, Tim Brown, CEO of the world renowned design firm, IDEO, says, “In short, design thinking converts need into demand. It’s a human-centered approach to problem-solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative.” To someone new to the concept of design thinking, this may sound like just a whole bunch of nice sounding buzzwords, but there is a lot of truth to these words. Allow us to break it down for you.

The first sentence in that statement says is that design thinking helps turn “need into demand.” This is because the process of design thinking starts with a problem. These problems can be anything from “what would be a more comfortable way for people to sit at work?” to “how can we create a better experience for our customers when they’re not in a physical location with us?” Once a problem has been defined, people can start to use design thinking to solve it.

The next, and most important part of Brown’s statement is that design thinking is a “human-centered approach to problem-solving.” While you may think that most approaches to solving problems seem “human-centered” design thinking really approaches solving the problem through means that seem really quite human; talking about ideas, playing with ideas, building on thoughts and ideas as you try them out, really getting to see and touch things, and more. IDEO also has 7 rules for brainstorming solutions, that we found on The Extraordinary Team Blog, which speak to these methods. They are:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on others’ ideas
  4. Stay on topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity.

Once you read these rules, you might start to think, “isn’t this how all brainstorming for ideas should go?” The answer is possibly yes, but in a lot of companies, especially larger ones, this isn’t always how it happens. One reason is that in larger companies some people may be afraid to speak up in front of or challenge the ideas put out by someone that ranks higher than them in the org chart. In other companies, there can be an unspoken insinuation that only certain people can come up with ideas and if they’re not the ones doing it, the ideas aren’t going to fly. But in design thinking, there is no such thing as a bad idea, just ones that don’t wind up working and ones that can be built on until a solution that people can agree on and actually works comes around.

This method is also known by the term “Divergent Thinking.” According to wikipedia, divergent thinking “typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, ‘non-linear’ manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion. Many possible solutions are explored in a short amount of time, and unexpected connections are drawn” So, you may wind up with several ideas that get to that final point. But the point of this method is so that there are always options for solutions and options for ideas that can be built on to create a solution.

The important takeaway that you should get from this very high-level description of design thinking is that it can help you innovate by looking at one single problem at a time and then playing around with ideas so that you wind up with multiple options for how you can solve that problem. From there, it’s just a matter of selecting the best solution and making it happen.

While IDEO, which we mentioned above, is sometimes thought of synonymously with the concept of design thinking, it’s important to remember that there are actually multiple ways that the method can be approached. This article was intended to give you a high overview of design thinking and we will explore some of the other ways people approach it in some follow up pieces with other experts in the method. For now though,  take a watch of this video where Guido Stompff takes to the TED stage in Venlo, Netherlands, and explains his approach to design thinking in his talk “Speed Up Innovation With Design Thinking”:

If you’d like to learn more and take part in conversations around how intrapreneurs are creating innovation in their respective companies, we invite you to join our Intrapreneur Alliance Facebook Group.

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