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What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a philosophy in innovation that engages empathy to intentionally solve others’ problems and better the human experience. 

Most solutions simply solve the problem as it was initially understood. However, design thinking employs an iterative process that considers the individuals directly affected by the problem who will actually use the solution. By focusing on the human experience, rather than the problem itself, the proposed solution eliminates the initial problem while improving the human condition by challenging assumptions, identifying the root of the problem, and strategizing alternative approaches to the solution. 

 

Why (Re)Design Your Organization

Despite the name “design thinking,” it is not exclusive solely to designers. It benefits all occupations and industries because the iterative process is easily adaptable to your organization’s unique culture, through methods like Six Sigma and Lean. Since design thinking considers human needs, you can utilize it to solve any problem, in any capacity, including problems you see within your organizational structure. 

Within your organization, design thinking provides an inexpensive way to drive change and improve processes by recognizing how your people experience these problems. Long term, design thinking saves your company an average of 44% per project, while providing an opportunity to measure each solution’s impact using solution specific metrics. 

Fundamentally, leaders implement process and organizational changes to solve problems which detract from your company’s goals, rather than how your employees experience these problems. By rethinking how you solve problems within your organization and implementing the design thinking processes, you create a culture built on trust and creativity, allowing employees to develop unique and applicable solutions to problems instead of addressing symptoms. Consequently, you also improve your organization by increasing employee satisfaction, offering a better product, and generating higher profits. 

 

Rethinking Traditional Leadership

A leader utilizing design thinking uses empathy to understand the experience of others. This might be customer experiences, or it might be team members and employees. When considering organizational change, it is vital to think about the impact not only on the work employees do but also on how it will affect morale. Positive change occurs when those going to be affected by the change are included in creating the change. This means speaking with employees about how they would improve what they do, listening to understand, asking questions, and maybe performing the tasks they need to understand their perspective fully.

A leader utilizing design thinking for organizational change will focus on the benefit to the teams and employees, understanding that driving change that makes an employee’s life better will manifest itself with greater profits or a bigger customer base. Solving problems your employees have as you implement organizational change will reduce turnover, increase productivity, and improve morale and communications. It will also create more significant buy-in from your employees, who will be more willing to accept the changes and work towards your vision.

A leader utilizing design thinking looks to coach others rather than sharing viewpoints. They ask questions to help others discover how to utilize any changes or solutions. They help others improve, based on self-assessment, rather than some review process that may or may not be valid based on the employee’s duties and responsibilities. It creates a sense of accountability for the individual in question because they seek understanding in their terms rather than sharing their opinions. While leaders need to have a compelling story to present the need for implementing changes, it is through coaching rather than dictating that employees will have a higher degree of engagement and buy-in.

Designing Better Solutions

A leader utilizing design thinking listens with respect and fearless exploration to understand others. Understanding the concerns, fears, motives, and desires of others is a powerful step towards solving problems or improving processes. Beyond empathetic listening, leaders need to fearlessly explore the concerns of others. Because the primary goal of organizational change is to improve the organization’s conditions, consequently, the employees’ lives also improve. This fearless exploration may reveal some things about you, as a leader, that you don’t see. While it may be critical, consider the criticism as a gift because you are granted the opportunity to improve as a leader. When your employees see that you are willing to listen and change your approach, you will build loyalty and trust.

A leader utilizing design thinking openly expresses ideas and what they see, think, and feel. This is a far cry from the old school stoics who never betray what they believe. By sharing your ideas with the people who will be affected by the changes you implement and the solutions you propose, you demonstrate a desire to include others in the process, gain feedback, and explore different solution paths. 

A leader utilizing design thinking pursues knowledge by being curious, inquiring, and asking questions. They never know the answers or have a solution when they begin the problem-solving process. They don’t assume a position without understanding the problem from the perspective of those affected by the problem. More than asking questions, design thinkers are willing to experiment, build new models, and test new ideas to find the best solutions and changes. These are designed for real improvement and not just change for the sake of something new.

A leader utilizing design thinking demonstrates the ability to be vulnerable, including accepting of mistakes and incompetence. This is part of being human and recognizing that we are not always perfect. It is a strength rather than a sign of weakness. Design thinkers understand that not every solution is going to be successful. Rather than discarding a failed attempt, they take the time to look at what went wrong and what went right. In this way, they can learn and develop a viable solution that is beneficial and solves the problem rather than merely masking the problem’s symptoms.

 

Culture (Re)Designed

A leader utilizing design thinking relies on others’ knowledge and insights, not acting as the lone genius. They openly admit they do not know all the answers and consider others’ experiences when developing solutions. It is through the knowledge and insights of others that essential details are discovered. These details are easily overlooked by anyone who has not experienced the problem firsthand. Without these insights, the solution will be incomplete.

A leader utilizing design thinking strives for self-knowledge and use personal power of choice. They are looking for a deeper understanding of themselves and how they see themselves within the organization and the world. They choose the problems they want to solve and how these solutions will best help the people affected by the problem. They see themselves as active participants in the solution and recognize the impact they have on their organization and employees. With a greater understanding of themselves, they are better able to lead change and move the organization closer to its goals.

A leader utilizing design thinking uses curious confrontation to manage disagreement and conflict effectively. In this way, they always keep their employees first and critique the work rather than people. They ask simple yet critical questions while emphasizing purpose and intent. Leveraging the breadth and depth of the expertise and knowledge within the organization, they come from a place of inquiry, creating a need to act with measurable results.

A leader utilizing design thinking aligns their personal purpose in contributing to the organization’s mission. They live out the values and vision they look to instill in their employees, creating a more profound sense of loyalty and trust. They believe in the design thinking process and how it positively impacts their people, resulting in the bottom line.

Design thinking is a new way of thinking for many leaders. Yet, it is sustainable. It allows us to ask questions from new perspectives (Proctor and Gamble created their Swiffer product to answer the question, “How might people mop their floors without creating mud?”). Leaders who embrace design thinking can boldly face new challenges with confidence because they know the process works. 

Is it time for your leadership team to embrace design thinking?

 

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