Teaching Design Thinking to Japanese Corporations — What I See in Their Innovation Process

What do you do for a living? ーSometimes people ask me this question and I stammer, not because I work in the States unlawfully of course, but because it is difficult to make people imagine what I do in one word.

So… my title is Innovation Facilitator (sounds fancy, isn’t it??). I have been supporting corporations (mainly Japanese) to develop their new service based on the idea of design thinking and UX. I think my work is a mixture of being a facilitator and a Design Thinking consultant.

Our projects usually start with an inquiry. Our business managers will consult with a client and they give me the project outline. I feel that many clients have trouble reaching new service ideas, which would be valuable and ask us for help. Some clients come to us with their aim to increase the amount of creative thinker for sustaining their prosperous businesses.

In those cases, my responsibilities have been planning and executing a design thinking training program which leads participants to learn a mindset of design thinking and UX. The length is as long as 10 weeks; it is not just a workshop.

After we navigate clients to the world of design thinking by introductory workshop and lecture, clients start to develop their new service and we support them as mentors. Most traditional Japanese corporations are still following a waterfall method and service developments tend to be technology-oriented. Clients who expect design thinking as a game changer will contact us.

The programs are almost tailormade; before participants arrive in San Francisco, we as a team of facilitators, discuss how to proceed the program based on the clients’ needs, participants’ background, and the company culture.

Because participants usually work on a project by waterfall method, some participants show a strong sense of resistance to adopting design thinking mindset. It is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching design thinking to a Japanese corporation, but that is why there is big value. Since I facilitate a lot of ideation discussion, post-its and whiteboard markers are my work bodies.

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One-Scene from a Service Development Workshop (Me in the right side)

WHY DO JAPANESE CORPORATIONS WANT TO LEARN DESIGN THINKING?

However, many corporations started to try to adopt the idea and introduce it to their corporate cultures because they believe design thinking would produce “innovation” like many successful startups in the Bay Area.

The reason for their urging innovation is because of this fast-paced society. The longevity of corporations is obviously shrinking. According to Credit Suisse, the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company is under 20 years, down from 60 years in the 1950s, and similar trends are happening in Japan.

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The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company (Credit Suisse)

In order for a company to sustain a greater lifespan, the business itself needs to change. For example, a megabank developed its innovation lab by trying to make something unrelated to finance, or automobile companies started to think about how to move without cars. Traditional companies such as these began developing completely new services and products. They innovate in order to strive for continued success.

But traditional corporations don’t know HOW to innovate because they had been thinking that following their golden methods is the safer way to continue to do business well. Traditional huge corporations, which stumbled to create new innovations have not made big changes within their corporation system and business model since the day they succeeded. Perhaps this is the same as traditional huge corporations in other countries including the U.S.

That is why large traditional corporations are considering design thinking too, not only to survive but also to thrive in various fast-past global competitive markets.

DESIGN THINKING IS A MINDSET, NOT A MAGIC WAND FOR INNOVATION

With design thinking, you seek people’s hidden needs by listening to their voices, observing how they act, and put a focus on these aspects (we call this “empathy” as a design thinking terminology). And keep trying to find the best way to fulfill the needs. And because of that, design thinking helps us to create new solutions as services and products in our lives.

Gradually, as the number of users increases, their services and products become an essential part of our lives. I think services and products made this way are innovative. Therefore, numbers of people use the service and the product that is produced by design thinking and they become essential in our lives.

To be sure, design thinking is not easy to master or applied toward any business model. There is a process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Also, there are some tips and frameworks, such as Empathy Map, Value Proposition, and Customer Journey Map, that helps find people’s hidden needs and make a greater or better solution. At the same time, those frameworks can be mistaken as if design thinking is a method. Honestly, I misunderstood this too at the beginning.

IS DESIGN THINKING SIMILAR TO SPORTS? PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

Even though I understand what design thinking is and believe in it, I still find it difficult to locate potential populations who would find this methodology vital and beneficial in developing solutions that fit their needs. I try to understand users as much as possible to empathize with them and see their potential needs.

I know that I will not immediately find great solutions and that I will stumble and fall as I problem solve. You cannot emphasize too much to users to develop great solutions for them. What makes finding the optimum solution to a problem so challenging is that there are no right answers.

There are so many skills to polish to understand users better. We can improve on how to talk to them in order to better know how they feel. We can also be more open-minded and see a problem from many different points of view. To develop better solutions, being able to see a problem from multiple perspectives is a strong asset.

These are all skills that require polishing and we can only do so by applying design thinking to actual problem-solving. That is why I think design thinking is similar to sports. You can always find a way to do better. There are no limits.

OBSTACLES TO ADOPT DESIGN THINKING IN JAPANESE MEGA-CORPORATIONS

1. They are perfectionists! They need to know if they will succeed before they start

First, they are afraid to fail and take way too much time to start something new. Even if a boss asks you to try something new, you need to show them proof that it will go well. Moreover, if you get approval from your boss, you need to get another approval from your boss’ boss…and his boss’ boss’ boss…

With design thinking, you fail and learn from it, and make improvements, little by little. Design thinking does not guarantee a perfect solution.

2. They tend to be company-centered

I think that huge traditional corporations already have some accomplished missions. Even though they want to try something new, they usually have some requirements for it. For example, their boss asks them to make some new service by using a specific technology.

Projects start from the corporation’s own convenience, not from users. We could say it is natural as a corporation, but when we think with design thinking mindset, we want to know who we want to help. To help the users, the technology might not be the best tool to help them.

In many cases, solutions we develop through design thinking is more low-tech than we expected at the beginning of the project.

So, even though you are required to find a way to use the technology, you sometimes have to forget about it. You are not looking for a way to sell your technology, you are looking for a way to help people.

SO… WHAT DO I THINK ON HOW TRADITIONAL CORPORATIONS CAN ADOPT DESIGN THINKING SMOOTHLY?

I believe design thinking is an excellent skill to help corporation survive and help people in this uncertain society. But if they adopt the idea to their corporate system, they need to have the courage to learn from failure.

I think the first step is to prepare the special space, like a laboratory which allows company members to try their assumptions without explanatory documents or repeated approval from management.

The success from the lab will help to cultivate the understanding of design thinking within the company. And that leads design thinking to a position of essential working literacy in Japanese corporations.

Written by

Service design facilitator with design thinking / Passionate about design for social good

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