Innovators Toolbox: Design Thinking

Too many times have I seen decisions made in the ivory tower of local government fall flat in their operational implementation due to lack of input into the design from all the customers. The old way of thinking and functioning as government trumps a progressive and modern approach to creating an amazing and impactful program.

Government is bad at identifying customers, both external and from within.

We tend to design our programs and initiatives under the same structure of bureaucratic government from the 1950's. You go do this, I’ll go do this, and eventually down the road we will meet and both get what we want. Usually, some unforeseeable outcome that is either unrealistic, unmeasurable, or unrelated. Each “silo of excellence” perpetuates this way of thinking.

“We don’t have customers, we have citizens.” Meaning, the people that live, work, play, visit, study and support our city/state/country are not customers. They have no choice, impact or influence on what or how government operates. I do no believe this to be true. Not by any stretch of the imagination should this old way of thinking remain unchecked.

People choose where they live and study based on a multitude of reasons, therefor, they are in fact customers. Mike Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, has proven that business acumen and focus on operations is paramount for a city to succeed in this day and age. The biggest influence this has created in my opinion, is emphasizing the role and importance of its customers, both within City Hall and that come through its doors.


“The times, they are a changing…” -Bob Dylan

Truer words could not have been spoken. From when Bob sang them in 1964 through today, everything is changing. We have the Google, smartphones, social media, Amazon.com, and Apple all influencing everyone. Establishing their customers expectations on service, desires and needs. That’s why government today needs to focus on understanding its customers. The re-urbanization of America is creating a heightened emphasis on competition among cities as they focus on attracting new young talent in order to expand their tax base, increase revenues and modernize infrastructure and neighborhoods (sounds an a lot like a business way of thinking, focusing on attracting new customers). Identifying the customers of government, is a new and foreign approach for many public servants. Identifying and understanding customers, their habits, expectations, and values is part of Design Thinking, which I feel is a foundational element to civic innovation.

Design Thinking: Project design to match peoples (customers) needs with what is possible (technologically and operationally) to support a businesses operations that create customer value.

Let’s return to my earlier post about System of Systems regarding the planting of trees. The project faced a huge obstacle due to the separation of the “silos of excellence” which created operational challenges to accomplish the goal of planting 1,000 new trees. Understanding all of the systems involved with this project is an important role for an innovator. Expanding this value to the project to influence project design and the potential achieving of outcomes becomes the next value add.

Goal: plant 1,000 trees in parks, medians, and sidewalk tree wells to beautify public spaces and streetscapes in our neighborhoods, while improving our sustainability infrastructure to reduce impact of storm-water run-off and CO2 emissions.

Outcome: 1,000 new trees planted

Needs: evidence of effect of trees planted, proof of community impact, and civic engagement in the process, because if a tree is planted in the forest and no one is around to see it did it really happen.

Customers: citizens and businesses that request trees to be planted, Department of Public Works to plant trees along sidewalks and medians, Department of Parks & Rec to plant in our public spaces.

Now comes the fun part. Each customer has their own expectations, needs, and habits. Navigating through the systems process should highlight areas within each ‘silo’ that identify true programs needs and those that are organizational excuses based upon old habits.

Begin by looking at the end first. Define how this should work in perfect world.

1. Program is marketed across the City

2. Citizens submit locations for trees to be planted

3. Auto-magically these submissions find their way to the correct Department and are planted

4. Three months later, 1,000 tree planted and everyone is happy!

Seems easy enough, but remember each the customers involved. Each customer has needs and expectations that must be incorporated into the design of this program.

Citizens must have narrowly defined areas to submit tree locations that fit the internal customers of Public Works and Parks & Rec. As they submit, they should be asked the following questions:

· Is this in a park

· Is this a tree well in a sidewalk

· Is this in a median of a street

City Departments are often unaware that citizens do not automatically think in the way that government is structured (Nor should they! Governments tend to be structured in confusing ways that do not make sense.). Citizens will need some qualifying options in this example. For one, it helps engage them with the program and will also help them identify good locations for trees to be planted. Ones they might not have thought of before. The City Departments will then receive automatically vetted locations of trees as defined by their specific “silo” of operation. In this manner, you are applying the Design Thinking approach for all customers involved while incorporating their expectations and needs.

On a side note, one of the biggest challenges I see government programs face, is understanding how to handle civic engagement and expectations. For instance, what if the number of requested tree locations being larger than the program can support? What an awesome problem to have! You only have funds for 1,000, so receiving 1,500 requests means you have an engaged customer base to support this and future efforts. Too often this is looked at negatively, because government looks at this as if we are failing to meet expectations. This is a key place I see good programs miss the mark. Prepare to receive more tree locations than you have funding for. State: “We hope to satisfy each request, but understand that we only have funding for 1,000 trees. Once this is target has been met, the remaining locations will be addressed as soon as we fiscally are able to.” Expectation set and met.

The role of a public sector innovator, is to foresee this challenge before it becomes a limiting factor. Design Thinking is a new concept in many ways and can be easily added to any program or project. It is key to apply this way of thinking without using certain words, such as customers, which can confuse seasoned bureaucrats. Start with the end operational goal in mind and work backwards, identifying key operational needs and the ‘customer’ expectations to be set in order to achieve the ultimate goal and outcome. Remember, in this scenario, your role is to be a value-add to the program, to help align the program to be successful, analyzing each facet of the program from the customers view, supporting their needs before they object about them.

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