Design Thinking Implementation — Is your organization ready?

A few decades into the surge of Design Thinking, we have arrived at an inflection point. Many people and companies are saying, “That was it? Wasn’t this supposed to change the world?” In the face of let down, many are throwing their hands up and claiming Design Thinking a fraud, making too many promises while yielding too few results.

Companies hired consultancies to provide workshops and coaching, at the end of which, they expected to have an edge on competition. They had paid for the secret weapon of Design Thinking, their teams reveled in the emotional charge immediately after workshops, and surely, they were now a modern, empathy-led company. They. Had. Arrived!!

But hold up.

Design Thinking demands more than an isolated process or workshop. Magic doesn’t happen overnight. Expecting a miracle product from Design Thinking sample packs (i.e. workshops and consultancies) is likely what led to the perceived failure of Design in many cases. Design Thinking challenges organizations to make big changes; superficial attempts are glaringly awkward and wasteful.

Manifesting the benefits of Design Thinking requires courage, tenacity, and vision. Organizations must implement new organizational designs and make a commitment to leadership and coaching.

Organizational Design: Making space for Design. When consulting on design thinking adoption, I have asked multiple VP and Senior Director level leaders “Do you have any ideas on where in your organization design should live?” In every case, they responded with some version of “Well, I want it to live everywhere and in everyone.” While there are certainly lessons from DT that apply to most, if not all, work functions, expecting results from a strategy of “everywhere and everyone” is going to lead to failure.

A common rule of thumb for allocating resources to innovation is some version of the 70–20–10 rule, where 70% of a business’ resources are dedicated to the repeatable, reliable processes that protect the core product. The remaining 30% is dedicated, in varying amounts, to innovation and new ideas. Applying that to design thinking means that a company should have 70% of people working on outcomes that need to be mostly risk-free and repeatable, not “everywhere and everyone”, and 30% to design. This could vary based on the nature of a specific industry or the maturity of a certain company, but it serves as a good general guideline. If leaders aren’t ready and willing to set aside some percentage of resources for design thinking activities, they will fail.

It is asking too much of someone to radically change their daily work behaviors while still maintaining their regular tasks, tasks and culture that likely isn’t changing with them. Business can’t continue as usual. Environmental changes must be made that support the expected behavioral changes, while protecting the core business.

Post-workshop or post-visit from a consultancy, teams and spaces must be set aside and dedicated to pursue DT. Leaders must immediately take hand-selected individuals and say “From today forward, this is your job.” It is possible to have individual workers spend 80% of their week on non-design activities and 20% on design, but there is a variety of reasons that is less than optimal. Designers should be able to dedicate as close to 100% of their time to design as possible.

Perhaps one of the greatest values of a design workshop, rather than teaching design thinking as is commonly thought, is rather that it is a strengths finder exercise. A workshop starkly highlights individuals in the organization that are skilled at and passionate about design. Leaders should host workshops not necessarily with the intent of upskilling their folks, but rather, identifying the teammates who are already skilled. Those should be selected for design work. More to come on this in a later post!

Additional Organizational Characteristics for Design Thinking:

  1. Access to dedicated developers for prototyping ideas. Often, but not always, the developer skill set is at odds with the design skill set. The design team needs a resource that can rapidly prototype their software ideas. Most crucially, having a crappy prototype of software is key to proving the business case. Design teams can give their prototype specifications to the developer to build. The team can then test. Rinse. Repeat.

Leading Design teams through coaching and influence. In addition to being well-rounded leaders, design leaders must be highly capable at two main skill sets: design coaching and influence. First is coaching to design. This includes holding the team accountable to design behaviors, meaning the leader themselves must be disciplined and experienced in design. More challenging is a highly developed sense of when to challenge the team on their work versus letting them soar and take risks. The leader must synthesize the qualitative and quantitative data available to them from the business and leverage that to coach their designers towards outcomes that will be supportive of business strategy. Understanding the climate, priorities, and politics of the company, and knowing when, where, and how to communicate the work their team is doing is all also key to the second important leadership skill: influence.

An effective design leader is constantly being curious, gathering data and insights, and leveraging the data in who they communicate with and how they communicate. Through these activities, the leader is building trust. At some point, the leader’s team is going to need to ask the business for trust on a risky innovation. An effective design leader has a solid foundation of trust from which to make this proposal and should have already been informing and seeking feedback from the decision makers many times leading up to the proposal, in order to eliminate surprises and make it feel as though the decision makers were part of the process.

A leader should be splitting their time between internal and external. Internally being with their team, observing and coaching, and externally, being curious with their stakeholders.

Additional leadership characteristics for design thinking:

  1. Leaders will know how to steer their team towards relevant topics for design. While design should promote some free exploration and having nothing off-limits, good design leaders use quantitative performance indicators to point their team in a direction that matters. Further, these quantitative performance indicators should be revisited during prototyping and testing. Emotional response of the user is not enough to steer product development. It must be a balance of user response and impact to performance metrics.

I feel especially strongly about using quantitative data to steer prototyping. In the last year or so, my team was prototyping a new learning lab for our onboarding experience. In many cases, learners and trainers expressed excitement for a particular feature or idea, but upon observing them interacting with that feature, their behaviors weren’t actually changing and performance results weren’t moving. We threw out what they were excited about in favor of what drove performance. In some cases, excitement and performance aligned! In other cases, we had to ask them to embrace discomfort.

Committing to these elements of organizational design and leadership can require significant disruption to the status quo. Executives feel the pressure to satisfy shareholders and public opinion. Implementing design beyond just the consultation or the workshop takes focus, determination, and bravery. Carefully assessing the items above leading up to design workshops and implementation will drive a bigger return on investment!

What other components do you believe are key to long-lasting, value-creating design thinking implementation? Share in the comments or shoot me a message! I am sure there is more to expand on. Let’s start a dialogue!

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UX Writing Weekly #227 – UX WRITING HUB

UX Writing Weekly #227 – UX WRITING HUB


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