What Good is Design Thinking If I’m not a “Designer”?

design trends

What Good is Design Thinking If I’m not a “Designer”?

August 24, 2015
by Pete ChapinAlison Kotin

“Design Thinking seems great. But how am I supposed to use this in my professional life, especially if I don’t end up at an agency like Continuum?” ~MIT Sloan Student

Since 2011, the DesignWorks club at the MIT Sloan School of Management has partnered with Continuum to offer a six-week crash course in design thinking to first- and second-year MBA candidates.

In 2015, we joined forces with MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Virginia Healy-Tangney to offer an intensive three-day seminar during the MIT Leadership Center's “Student Innovation Period.” Students experienced a hands-on, user-centered service design process through collaborative, team-based work.

Our client was MIT’s Hayden Library, whose staff are planning a renovation and wanted to better understand the evolving needs of the library’s diverse population of scholars. Students and instructors alike instinctively felt the value of really listening to customers’ voices, re-framing the initial problems the client presented, and learning to work within a multidisciplinary team. From the start, these students also wanted to know: for an MBA candidate, how can these “design thinking” skills bring value in their future roles as leaders and innovators in the competitive business world?

In other words: What is design thinking when it’s not practiced by designers? This is a great question. The processes and skills we share with MIT Sloan students are based on Continuum's approach to solving challenging client problems to help them deliver new products, services, and experiences that are customer-centered. But what if you are a leader in healthcare, or in financial services, or you’re the founder of a startup, or you just want to figure out how to lead people or organizations—what can design thinking do for you?

We believe the principles of design thinking can provide value in a few specific ways:

  • Help entrepreneurs get to the right idea faster
  • Support leaders to foster innovation
  • Assist companies to confidently execute the right solutions

Ultimately, we believe design thinking can develop MBA students’ understanding of what it takes to guide companies of all sizes—from startups to Fortune 500—from idea to execution. Here’s how.

Get to the Right Idea Faster

A lot of entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs) think that coming up with the most creative new idea—and getting it to market before anyone else—is critical to their success. But this approach risks solving an issue that may not reflect the reality of consumers’ lives and needs. Startups today are focused on refining ideas through “minimum viable products,” often eschewing customer research and user-centered thinking in their early ideation. We like aspects of this lean, speedy MVP approach and the opportunities for iteration it affords, but we also challenged the young entrepreneurs at MIT Sloan to ask their customers and clients from the beginning: Do you want or need this new product or service? And why?

Design thinking forces entrepreneurs and startups to approach their ideas with more humility. Being customer-centric means listening to people and creating something for them based on their needs, not convincing them that your idea is amazing. Even at the earliest conceptual stages, entrepreneurs should be listening to their users and refining their offering based on feedback, not intuition. By taking time to understand what the user’s world and needs look like, the MVP doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark – it can be an evolving tool to help answer questions like: Which parts of this offering have value for customers? Why do they care? And how can we make it better in ways that have real impact?

Foster Innovation Through Collaborative Leadership

Today’s business leaders know they need to foster innovation. They understand that innovation comes from diverse teams who can collaborate effectively and iterate together to develop new ideas. A good leader creates the right conditions for this environment, keeps her people on course, and secures the necessary resources to enable progress.

This collaborative approach is at the core of design thinking. Everyone on the team is responsible for participating and for maintaining an environment conducive to innovation. A good leader supports the generation and evolution of a multiplicity of ideas, challenges teams to think together, and chooses and elevates team members who excel in this approach. These skills will equip leaders in any industry to keep their team members engaged and ultimately realize better business results.

Tomorrow’s leaders can’t be too in love with their own ideas—or expect too much credit for them—if they want to foster effective innovation. Imagine two scenarios: the first, someone comes up with an idea that becomes their “baby” and works to convince everyone else of its merit; the second, a collaborative team approach produces an idea that ultimately can’t be traced back to a single person, but has been revised and vetted until it is strong. Which output has a better chance of success? And which type of workplace would you rather be in?

Design thinking teaches us that we have to be comfortable with being wrong. Often. And this is a good thing—it is part of the iterative process of moving towards stronger ideas that are more meaningful for the target audience. Design thinkers are accustomed to constructive critique (or even dismantling) of their ideas, crafting something new and better that wouldn’t have been possible without multiple viewpoints and a strong voice of the customer present at every step. We have to be willing to hear criticism and adapt, to pivot and abandon ideas we are partial to, because ultimately the solution will only succeed if it can address real user needs.

It takes a strong leader to be comfortable with the ambiguity of this process. As we learned from Professor Healy-Tangney and her leadership students, the kind of learning experiences that make group work, critique, iteration, and collaborative leadership second nature are a must. Students are eager for experiential opportunities now, as many know that upon graduation they will be expected to collaborate and lead effectively across disciplines, cultures, and timelines to champion new ideas with passion, and positively affect the lives of their customers.

Successfully Execute on the Right Ideas

One successful Bay Area entrepreneur told us: “Ideas are nothing. Money is easy. The hard part is the execution.”

We think he’s right; at Continuum, we talk about “making things real”—a new idea’s success can be judged on its ability to get to market and make an impact. This is another place where design thinking can help business leaders—by increasing confidence that the right ideas are elevated, and understanding how to execute them internally.

Suppose you work in management at a bank, responsible for the development of new consumer financial offerings. How do you know whether a new product will be successful? You can turn to all types of data, your own experiences and intuition, and the best consulting that money can buy, but someone versed in design thinking would begin by asking himself: Do I have any idea what my customers need? And how can I find out? What would I learn if I spent a day as a bank teller, interacting with customers and getting a sense of what they are trying to accomplish when they use our services?

These questions are important to help keep the customer experience at the center of your ideation, but the feasibility of executing a new initiative, product, or service depends not just on customer reception but also on how employees experience delivering it and working as a part of the organization as a whole. A day behind a bank teller’s window not only elucidates customers’ behavior and needs, but also can offer insights into how staff manages customer interactions, what pain points make their job harder, and what opportunities exist to get them on board with new processes and approaches.

Designing a new offering in the context of this entire ecosystem is crucial to its eventual success. And by encouraging this mindset in the workplace, including going out and sharing customers’ and employees’ experiences as part of the research process, companies move towards a more customer-centric mindset and build greater connections between innovative new offerings and customers and staff.

Design Thinking: Principles to Help Future Business Leaders to Succeed

All companies fall somewhere on a spectrum between knowing what their customers need and figuring out how to execute on a new idea. Startups might have an idea and some funding but no implementation plan, while more mature companies might be ready to launch a prototype but have no plan for how to evaluate its success and issues to effectively evolve over time. Everyone needs help understanding what the impact is going to be with their customers; design thinking can help business leaders succeed no matter the company or industry in which they work.

We think great leadership means an ability to lead diverse groups to success. In our MIT Sloan course, we taught the design thinking process as a way to illustrate how working collaboratively leads to meaningful innovation and the ability to bring ideas to execution. The highly positive feedback we got from students suggests that MBA millennials are keenly interested in mastering design thinking principles to help them better meet the needs of their future businesses, customers, and employees. Perhaps the future of successful business innovation involves increasing literacy in design thinking principles.

So, to answer the original question posed by our Sloan students: you can apply what you’ve learned from design thinking to put intent behind all of your business decisions. They should be “designed” purposefully and strategically, regardless of whether you have the word “designer” in your title. From getting your startup off the ground, to becoming a more collaborative leader, to fostering greater innovation in an established organization, the principles of design thinking can help you get there.

filed in: design trends, design thinking methodology

About the Author

  • Chapin Pete
    Pete Chapin
    Business Strategist

    Pete is perpetually curious about the world and the reasons behind why people make the choices they do. He is a firm believer in using human-centered design thinking to uncover the needs that people have in their lives, and is adept at identifying the overlaps that exist between these needs and companies’ business objectives.

    At Continuum, he has done this work across sectors, in fields ranging from pharmaceuticals and healthcare to material technology and consumer appliances.

    Pete received his BA in social anthropology from Colby College and an MBA from Boston University.

  • Kotin Alison
    Alison Kotin

    Alison’s background as a writer, educator, and visual artist informs her design practice. She's fascinated by technologies that facilitate communication, collaboration, and engagement. Alison design websites, apps, interactive objects, and environments that provoke exploration, play, and synergy between digital and physical experiences.

    Alison has created curricula to encourage students to incorporate in-depth research into the design process and explore emerging digital tools. She’s also been a researcher at the Harvard AIDS Institute and as the leader of development and marketing at The Urbano Project.

    Alison holds an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Dynamic Media Institute, a diploma in design and studio art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and a BA in English literature from Brown University.