5 Ways to Infuse Design Thinking Into Your Team’s Process

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From education to healthcare, design thinking has permeated dozens of industries as a way to foster creative problem solving and catalyze innovation at the same time. Originally championed by design consultancies as the secret to innovation, design thinking has always been a versatile approach toward problem solving, involving integral design techniques like user empathy, ideation, rapid prototyping and testing, all of which help teams tackle complex business and organizational problems. Large institutions not typically associated with the design industry, like Intuit, Capital One and Kaiser Permanente, have recently turned to design thinking as a way to fuel creativity, up their competitive advantage and create more meaningful products and experiences for their customers. In short, they’ve seen the veritable light behind design thinking, and jumped on board. So, what’s the secret?

With a plethora of workshops and books available from design thinking experts, it’s easy to mistake it for a step-by-step process that a cross-functional team can quickly learn and apply. But in truth, design thinking is a distinctive way of working and problem solving, that for those unaccustomed to it, can feel foreign and unfocused at first. In order to truly impact a team that may be hindered by silos or organizational hierarchies, design thinking requires a fundamental shift in the way a team works and thinks.

In my experience, teams that practice design thinking are highly collaborative, multidisciplinary project teams, comprised of people from different backgrounds—including design, engineering, research and business—that jointly apply human-centered design strategies to solve problems. Hands-down, it’s a great approach, but it does require some forethought in terms of implementation.

If you’re hoping to infuse design thinking into your team’s process, there are five things you should keep in mind—outside of the fact that design thinking teams simply do things a bit differently.

  1. Design thinking teams seek diverse perspectives—Design thinking teams are not only multidisciplinary in their make-up, but they also actively seek out diverse perspectives to help them devise better solutions. The team’s cross-functional expertise, though valuable, is rarely enough. While they leverage internal expertise, design thinking teams deliberately seek out a variety of external viewpoints in order to validate their assumptions and build a holistic understanding of their customers’ needs and experiences.
  2. Design thinking teams co-design—Design thinking teams co-design both internally as a team, as well as externally with customers or end-users. Simply put, solution design isn’t the sole responsibility of designers and other “creative types.” Internally, all members of the design thinking team—from engineers and strategists, to business leads—participate in the definition, design and creation of value for customers or end-users. Externally, design-thinking teams solicit feedback throughout the product development cycle to validate design direction and ensure that the team is producing something that is genuinely valuable to users. This participatory approach to design is built on a fundamental understanding that design is not someone’s job, but a disciplined approach to problem solving fueled by empathy, creativity and collaboration.
  3. Design thinking teams practice radical empathy—An understanding of your customer’s goals, needs and pain points is critical to developing customer-centric solutions that genuinely resonate with end-users. But institutional knowledge and assumptions can often bias our understanding of customers, which is why design thinking teams dedicate resources to speak directly to or observe customers in real world contexts, so they can grasp the environmental factors that influence behavior and motivation. They consistently begin by questioning what their customer’s life is like today and how they can make their lives easier, as opposed to how their customer is using their product.
  4. Design thinking teams iteratively re-frame problems—Conventionally, once a problem is defined, problem solvers focus on selecting and refining the right solution. Design thinking teams, however, know that the problem is rarely precise enough from the get-go, requiring constant reframing as the team better learns and understands the problem space.
  5. Design thinking teams get paint on the walls—Design thinking teams make ideas tangible. Regardless of one’s visual design skills, design thinking teams understand the value of externalizing ideas, whether it’s a quick sketch on the whiteboard, a diorama, or a functional prototype, their goal is to make ideas concrete with as little effort as possible. The illustration of ideas—even the rough cut of an idea—helps teams discuss, challenge, test and ultimately align on what’s working and what isn’t. This habit of “getting paint on the walls” facilitates a culture of enlightened trial and error that empowers teams to build on successful ideas or pivot when something just isn’t working.

When looked at this way, design thinking offers a shared way of working, fostering transparency, human-centered thinking and a functional bias towards action—all great things. If you can, look at how your team currently operates and consider whether you could approach things a bit differently, with a design-focused mindset, and what that could mean for you and your clients.

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