3 Design Thinking Tips for Managers

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In the year and half since we launched designthinking.bg — our boutique customer experience agency, we were lucky to pitch in front of many companies and fortunate to work with a few forward-thinking ones. We learned from both. Here are three tips for managers contemplating on whether they should invest in design thinking or not.

In fact “to invest or not” is the wrong entry point, the better question is “how to invest in design thinking so that it has a lasting effect on the organization and its bottom line”. The answer is to first link design thinking to a higher strategy, then start educating your top management, and finally not to fear to lose some control.

  1. Link it to strategy

An investment in just about anything has higher chances to succeed if it’s part of a “grand strategy”. Investment in design thinking is no exception. It is a very powerful tool, but only if you know what you want to do with it. “We want to implement design thinking” doesn’t cut it. Implementing design thinking is not a strategy. “We want to be more customer-centred”, “We want to focus more on design” and “We want to be more innovative” are just a tad better, but still too vague.

For a strategy to work it has to pass the one question test — “Does the opposite of your strategy look stupid?”— do you want to be less focused on customers, offer bad design and be less innovative? If not, then craft a meaningful strategy because, managing by buzzwords will only take you so far. People in the organization need to clearly understand where you are heading, and after that, why design thinking is the right means. They need to recognize that it can help them in practical ways — to better understand market needs, to work better with other departments, to innovate faster and ultimately to design better solutions for their customers.

For that, understanding what design thinking is, where it came from and where it is going, is crucial. As Tim Brown and Roger Martin explain in their latest article on Harvard Business Review “Design for Action” — in the beginning design thinking was applied to make hardware products look and feel better, then UI, UX, services and now it’s used by companies to redesign whole organizations and even, systems of organizations. So, what’s your strategy?

2. Start at the top

At designthinking.bg we often get the request to introduce groups of employees to design thinking. There is nothing wrong with that. We work with companies that truly care for their employees and always strive to offer them the most contemporary training. However, introducing employees to design thinking without planting the design thinking seeds at the highest level is futile.

I was reading an interview with PepsiCo’s CEO about implementing design thinking at the company. Her first step was to give each of her managers an empty photo album and a camera and to ask them to take pictures of anything they thought represented good design. After six weeks, only a few people returned the albums. Some had their wives take pictures. Many did nothing at all. This is when she realized that she had to educate her managers about design and to first introduce design thinking to them. The best way for her to do so was to bring a designer in the C-level team.

Similar is the story of Carlos Rodríguez-Pastor, the CEO of Banco Internacional del Peru — one of Peru’s largest banks, which he inherited in 1995 when his father died. He understood that to have a thriving business in Peru, he needed to transform Peru’s economy by building up its middle class. He needed to build a business capable of triggering social change. This was his strategy, but to accomplish it, he needed a strong innovation team. He needed his managers to understand the principles of design thinking first and he methodically invested in it by sending them to the top design thinking programmes in the US. Only after was the design thinking methodology trickled down to employees.

To summarize — one-off design thinking trainings targeted at employees will not lead to sustainability of the investment. Employees will get excited about design thinking and the first time they try to do something with it, they will face managers that do not speak the same language and the excitement will thus quickly fade. This could actually have the opposite effect on increasing employees’ motivation for innovation. Introducing design thinking into big companies needs a holistic approach that starts at the top and systematically engages people inside the organization, while at the same time equipping them with the right tools to carry out research, define problems, think creatively and confidently prototype new solution in their field of work, be it product design, process engineering, marketing or HR.

3. Have no fear of losing control

One of the issues, which we discuss at length with our clients is what if things get out of control, what if people suddenly stop following the established work processes. It’s understandable that managers have the fear of losing control, but change happens so slowly, that it’s very unlikely that something out of the ordinary will abruptly happen.

From my experience, when people within an organization start to think in design thinking terms and begin to apply it to projects, along the way they will notice that some processes just don’t work in favour of customer-centred innovation e.g. product development department is not allowed to talk to end customers because it’s the account manager that does the communication or unfinished prototypes cannot be tested outside the organization. The important step then is for the managers to have a process to listen and to make amendments to the existing order of the day.

The father of Lean Startup, Steve Blank calls it the “Get to Yes” procedure. The “Get to Yes” procedure applies when an innovation team discovers they needed a new policy, procedure, etc. from an existing department (legal, finance, sales, HR, branding, etc.). The procedure requires them to submit a simple “Get to Yes” request form, which explains what policy the innovation team wants changed, why and how it has to change, the impact on other policies and the organization, and most importantly the risks to the core existing business. This is a simple way to make some space for innovation to happen.

Which leads us to the following — resistance to change is usually so high that we should be grateful when teams get activated, and when they discover that certain organizational structures, workflows and internal rules are impeding the process of customer-centred innovation. We should listen to these “noise signals” because they’re the sound of sustainable organizational change.

About the author:

Elina Zheleva is a Design Thinking Evangelist trained at the HPI School of DesignThinking and Stanford d.school. She works on bringing Design Thinking to startups, companies and public organizations in Bulgaria and CEE where she originally comes from. She is the founder of designthinking.bg

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