Using Heuristics to Embed Design Thinking in Your Firm

Recognising the value of design thinking is one thing, but embedding it in your firm is another. Tony Golsby-Smith talks about the importance of heuristics in creating design-centred dialogue in a firm.


How do you embed a new kind of thinking in an organisation? You will need a methodology that translates design thinking into behaviours and practices. This methodology must be more than just technical; it must appeal to hearts and minds. To do this it must be exciting and it must be memorable.

They became disdainfully labeled as the ‘doorstops’ in the organisation. No-one really used them as they were too complex.

If you have a heavy manual full of text and bullet points, nobody will remember it. This is one reason that most ‘methodologies’ fail to catch on in organisations. Consultants produce hundreds of pages of worthy but forgettable material for the organisation so that they can justify their fees by the volume of the document. I have seen notorious examples of this; for instance a well known consultancy gave a major client a ‘project management’ methodology which they housed in not one but two massive ring binders. They became disdainfully labeled as the ‘doorstops’ in the organisation. No-one really used them as they were too complex. This approach assumes that human beings are robots and will follow procedures provided they are written down — no matter how complicated (and confusing) they are. But people get overloaded by information when confronted by such complicated methods and manuals. They have never changed behaviours or cultures.

Instead you need to create a shared language for the organisation around the new methodology in much the same way that the successful TQM movements of the 1980s and 1990s simplified their methodology into the ‘seven tools of TQM’. The best way to create a shared language around design is by heuristics. A heuristic is a high level patterning device that people can use to guide their thinking particularly in ambiguous and complex situations. At 2nd Road we use graphical icons to capture our heuristics. This makes them very memorable and intuitive. People remember them and use them readily and they catch on quickly, and spread like a true virus. They become architectures around which people can tell their stories, and interpret their situations.

2nd Road’s ‘Design Wave’ heuristic

We have several ‘architectonic’ heuristics which are powerful enough to organise a major methodology and under which we can arrange other heuristics that work within the broader architecture. One of these architectonic heuristics organises our methodology around design thinking; we call it the ‘Design Wave’. Like all good heuristics it is easy to grasp quickly but it has layers of meaning behind it that you can explore forever.

Once you have a methodology, hopefully visualised into a memorable heuristic, you will need a program that works on several fronts. At the core you will need an education program that introduces the new tools and the new ways of thinking to the organisation. It is best to design these education programs around the ways that the organisation will use the design thinking. There are three key levels of usage in a typical organisation;

  • Design Awareness (for everybody) with the aim to light the fire of enthusiasm
  • Design Expertise (for facilitators and designers) with the aim to build a new core of professional expertise in the organisation
  • Design Leverage (for managers) with the aim of building managers’ capability to leverage this powerful new expertise for maximum organisational benefit

All three levels use the same methodology and the same heuristic. The difference lies in their depth and their applications. This is very important as it gives the organisation a shared language and a common toolkit. Since we are introducing a new way of thinking to the organisation, the education programs need to be persuasive and holistic not just technical. We need to transform the way people think and to some extent the way that they look at the world. In our experience this is not so hard. People get very excited about the design message because it appeals to their innate creativity and honours their humanity. In all our educational programs we emphasise that these tools are for all of life not just business. Far from diluting their usefulness to the organisation, this whole of life approach actually enhances. It helps people integrate life and work.

By Tony-Golsby Smith
Illustrations by John Luckman


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