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Design Thinking: 4 Questions That Will Help You Embrace Innovation

8 Reasons for Undergoing a Digital Transformation

Companies that drive innovation through the purposeful management of their innovation processes use a number of frameworks. Learn more here.

Innovation means moving into uncertainty. To foster innovation, we need to embrace that. Learning only occurs when we step away from the familiar and accept the uncertainty that inevitably accompanies new experiences.

Jeanne Liedtka, Darden Business School, Batten Briefing, January 2015

In my previous blog post, I was discussing how to create an innovative workplace. When working with customers in the technology and financial services space, I am often asked why some organisations are more successful than others in innovation and digital transformation, and how to drive systematic innovation.

Companies that drive innovation through the purposeful management of their innovation processes use a number of frameworks. The framework that I personally use is called “design thinking”. A generally accepted definition of design thinking has yet to emerge, and for some, the term is used so widely and generically that it risks becoming almost meaningless.

When it comes to a definition of design thinking, I personally agree with Thomas Lockwood, former president of the Design Management Institute, who defined design thinking as: “a human-centred innovation process that emphasizes observation, collaboration, fast learning, visualisation of ideas, rapid concept prototyping, and concurrent business analysis”

Different thought schools split design thinking into a number of stages covering data gathering, idea generation, and testing.

  • IDEO talks about Discovery and interpretation, Ideation, Experimentation and evolution.
  • Continuum talks about Delivering deep insights, Creating, and Making it real: prototyping, testing, and deploying.
  • Stanford Design School talks about Empathy and Definition, Ideation, Prototype and Testing.

The methodology I’ve found most successful, has been introduced by prof Jeanne Liedtka from Darden Business School and identifies four stages: What is?, What if?, What wows?, and What works? I will try to briefly describe the four stages here.

1. What is?

The first of the questions is “What is?” which explores the status quo, the current reality. We need a precise assessment and empathic understanding of what is happening today before we can start designing for tomorrow.

Developing a better understanding of what is happening now and setting aside our own assumptions is a key attribute of design thinking. Concentrating on the present, immersing oneself in the here and now and gaining a deeper personal understanding of the issues involved might be difficult at first but it could determine whether or not we will be successful. Evaluating the present helps us to broaden, and in some instances, alter the definition of the problem and/or opportunity we want to address.

At this stage, a substantial amount of information is gathered that helps us discover the unstated needs, which are paramount to producing the kind of innovative design criteria that result in the creation of differentiated solutions. The “what is?” stage provides us with data we can analyse. This is where we define the core problems and gain deep insights into what our stakeholders really want and need. Doing our discovery diminishes the risk of failure with a new idea and helps us determine what a great solution might look like without revealing the solution itself.

2. What if?

Now, we should be ready to ask the second question – “what if?” At this stage, we start to generate ideas and delve into possible opportunities/solutions. By now we would have reviewed the information/data we have gathered. The discovery we have conducted should have enabled us to identify both insights and patterns, which subsequently would have been translated into specific design criteria.

The consequent step for us is to use those criteria to ask the big question – “what if?”. Bear in mind that we want to commence by concentrating on possibilities. We begin too often with constraints rather than possibilities and end up with the future vision looking a great deal like the present. One of the most basic, yet powerful questions anyone can ask is “What if anything were possible?”.

The “what if?” stage is where the brainstorming occurs. During the brainstorming phase, we stimulate free thinking and go back and use the insights and the criteria we discovered throughout the “what is?” stage and formulate a series of trigger questions. The questions should act as an enabler and allow us to “think outside of the box”. After the brainstorming session(s) we will hopefully end up with a number of creative ideas, which will be combined into a number of business ideas. By the end of this stage, we will have a whole set of business concepts and should be ready to move to the third question…

3. What wows?

During the “what wows?” stage, each of the business concepts we have developed should be treated as a hypothesis. We will apply systematic evaluation to test these hypotheses against our design criteria. Provided that we were successful in the first two stages of design thinking, we will soon discover that we have a plethora of compelling concepts. Whether we like it or not, it would be virtually impossible to move forward with all of them at once.

While we dwindle the number of concepts to something we can actually manage, we should focus on the wow spot, the concepts our stakeholders will love and we, as an organisation, will be able to execute on and deliver on, when we convert them into new offerings. The concepts that wow will be turned into prototypes and tested with actual users.

4. What works?

We have now reached the fourth and final stage – “What works?” where the ideas that have made it through the previous three stages will now be turned into small-scale prototypes. The feedback we will gather from the users will enable us to iterate and improve our solution. After the first iteration, we test it with yet more users and repeat the process until we feel confident that we will be able to scale while delivering the value.

Agile delivery allows us to learn in action. The development cycles are fast, we ask for continuous feedback, are open to changes, deliver frequently, reflect on how to become more effective, minimise the costs, fail early, and hopefully, succeed quicker.

These four questions should enable you and your organisation to find more innovative solutions, be relevant, and grow.

Closing remarks

What is the business benefit of using design thinking in your organisation? I strongly believe that you would see more empathy, invention, and iteration. You would see teams working together, establishing a deep understanding of the needs, discovering new possibilities and using the solution only as a stepping stone to a better one. For me, one of the benefits of design thinking is that it creates a context and set of tools that help people from different parts of the business work together across differences.

Do you want to find out more about innovation? In this Innovation and the Customer Experience e-book, you will learn more about innovation as a discipline, being deliberate with innovation, breaking the rules and getting inspired. If you are interested in creating a culture of innovation in your organisation, it is a must-read.

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