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Design Thinking as a development mindset

Do you remember “disruption”? It was THE buzzword in 2016/17 – and it is still a much-discussed topic in the IT community. Companies are looking to uproot their way of thinking by displacing existing workflows, technologies or markets, and by doing so, creating something new and “effective”. Even though these efforts have proven to be versatile, they are also very cost-heavy and filled with serious risks if the company is not 100% sure why a transition to a more innovative approach is needed – and how it should be done.

One method that has gained ground in the last couple of years is Design Thinking. Design Thinking offers an innovative and exploratory way to frame problems, ask the right questions, create more ideas and choose the best solutions through well-founded evaluation and testing. But it requires that the organizations adopting this approach are culturally and capability-wise mature enough and know how to include their core users in the innovation process. If the Design Thinking approach is not anchored well enough to the company’s culture and key users, this approach can result in poorly founded decision-making and unexpected results.

The benefits of Design Thinking

So why should companies invest in adopting a Design Thinking approach? Gartner, the world’s leading research and advisory company, acknowledges Design Thinking as a success factor which companies and IT leaders should consider:

“IT leaders should look at and learn from the adoption of Design Thinking by almost all of the major software and IT service providers (..) As digital business opportunities grow, IT’s role in working with the organization is critical, and the use of Design Thinking becomes an even more important success factor.”

Besides being able to produce well-founded decision-making processes, Design Thinking can also be used more practically to create and evaluate business development initiatives, such as strategies and transformation projects.

But Design Thinking is not just a “tool” to be implemented in your organization. To be able to utilize the method to the full and reap the true benefits of Design Thinking, you need to prepare your organization for the mindset and be open to a culture that embraces mistakes, learning, divergent thinking and commitment to the process. So, when considering Design Thinking as a possible approach for your organization to adopt, it is important that you ask yourself why you need to use it as a development method for your company.

A process, not a tool

The importance of knowing why you should use Design Thinking is also grounded in the perception that Design Thinking is a process. Activities such as workshops are merely a part of it. Commitment to the entire process is needed, and it is essential to allocate resources for workshops, prototyping, evaluation sessions, and testing.

Since Design Thinking is, as the name implies, meant for designing a service, a strategy, a foundation for decisions or a transformation, it is vital that you involve the users in the entire process. You need to make sure that the vision for the end-result is continuously anchored to the users’ point of reference, thus facilitating a mutual understanding of the road ahead and the changes to come. These activities are facilitated by the continuous process of understanding your customer needs, exploring possible solutions, testing them through prototyping and evaluating the results.

You will find that many ideas and initiatives will prove to be flawed and fail, but that is the purpose of this approach. Design Thinking encourages you to fail fast – so you can succeed later. This also promotes the mindset where you need to be able to “kill your darlings”, to let go of bad ideas, but still make sure that the ones remaining are qualified.

Technology impact and understanding sensemaking

When talking about Design Thinking it is important that we do not only focus on user engagement or only see Design Thinking as a tool to achieve success. User engagement, prototyping or seeking to understand how individuals perceive solutions or technology are all part of the mindset. This also leads us to the subject of technology impact in organizations.

If we look at the way how human beings interact with technology, we see that in certain contexts people perceive technology as an actor in itself. This can be seen for example through experiments with prototypes where intentional build-in errors, unintentional errors or wrong use of the technology can affect the creation of meaning between individuals in an organization. Technology should therefore not be perceived as a static device that can only fit one purpose, and only yields one outcome when interacted with. The interaction between people and technology creates a dualistic relationship where the intended function of the technology can be misunderstood by the users – unless they understand the vision behind it. This may result in the technology not being used as intended or in the users intentionally creating non-optimal workarounds to be able to continue with their regular tasks.

Although technology in its physical form and function is static, different users will always differentiate the role of technology in the organization based on the context in which it is used. Therefore, when introducing a new technology, it is important to challenge, investigate and evaluate the impact this technology has on the employees’ sensemaking process. This can be facilitated by various workshops and can illuminate knowledge and opinions otherwise hidden or not articulated. Hence an organization needs not only to plan for structural, operational or strategic development but also to assess the human-centered organizational impact when introducing new concepts or initiatives, be it technology, innovations or strategies to its stakeholders.

Design Thinking done right

All in all, when talking about disruptive and/or innovative strategies, you should always be very specific as to why your organization would benefit from this, what challenges or processes you think Design Thinking could help solve or optimize, and how to communicate this with conviction to the users. Even when you think that you as a leader are ready to adopt the Design Thinking approach, it is not always enough. You need to ensure that your teams have the right capabilities to embark on this journey, and at the very least seek to evolve the culture of the company towards a “fail-fast” mindset.

Design Thinking, when properly adapted, can create a healthy and flexible organization. In the best-case scenario, the process of innovation creates a natural flow where you reduce risks and costs, time to market, and improve the end product and stakeholder buy-in. It is important to recognize organizations as constellations of individuals, and every change will be observed, judged and either discarded or adopted by these individuals. Design Thinking emphasizes engagement with your audience: learning, understanding and evaluating together with them. By involving stakeholders in the creation of meaning surrounding a new technology, strategy or innovation and in the definition of problems, Design Thinking enables a great commitment to the change process.

In a nutshell – Before you employ Design Thinking:

All-in-all, the entirety of transitioning to an agile and innovative company is a relatively complex project. If you only focus on the outputs, rather than the outcomes (yes, there is a difference!) – then you will probably fail in your quest for a more innovative and agile organisation. Design thinking and other concept development approaches can help you structure how to identify pain-points and opportunities early in the process. This can help you qualify or kill decisions or concepts, so that you build a healthy development pipeline with relevant and value-adding projects.

As a last thing, I would like to re-emphasize the importance of focusing on performing continuous evaluations and ensuring that the overall vision has been anchored and aligned with the end-users. This, for one thing, facilitates a better understanding of your company and how your employees think and work, but also facilitates pro-active quality assurance rather than re-active quality control.