In implementing design thinking, it’s the mindset that matters

Written by Satu Rekonen

Applying design thinking in non-design organisations requires a change in mindset, which is easier said than done. Buying into the logic of the iterative approach requires fluctuating between divergent and convergent thinking, and this can be a struggle for people accustomed to a more linear approach.

In the search for ways to encourage innovation in organisations, the role of design has become increasingly prominent. Innovation is, first and foremost, about uncertainty and complexity. Since design is a field that focuses on solving ‘wicked’ and ill-defined problemsand where uncertainty and complexity are well-acknowledged and embraced, design approaches are purported to facilitate innovation in organisations beyond the traditional context of professional design. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Professor Barry Katz have declared that ‘design has become too important to be left to designers’. Design thinking entails that key design methods are transferred to a ‘non-design environment’; those approaching these ‘design problems’ will in many cases be employees with limited or no experience with the approach.

The central role of experimentation in design thinking

Design practices differ from conventional problem solving, which is often based on a linear approach of planning and validation. In design, on the other hand, alternating between problem and solution spaces in an iterative manner is crucial. The problems are complex and ill-defined and the solution space vast with no single correct solution to be discovered. This requires generating alternative solutions, which must be assessed and selected in an iterative manner. The development team must transition between divergent thinking, i.e. generating alternative solutions (or problem statements), and convergent thinking, i.e. choosing the ones to proceed with. Therefore, the key component of the ‘designerly’ approach to problems is the gradual restructuring and improvement of the design problem, and through this, the solution. This requires maintaining an open mind toward alternative solutions and avoiding a premature urge to converge. This contradicts the way the majority of organisations are operating. In most cases, the problem to be solved must be ‘frozen’ in the early phases, after which pre-planned development path is followed.

It is not the case that companies would not be ‘designing’ already; nearly all organisations develop their products, services, or processes to some extent, but how they are ‘designing’ these changes dramatically differs from the premise of design thinking. Nonetheless, the majority of design-related management discussion among non-design organisations consists of describing the methods of design thinking and how it ‘should be done’, rather than ‘what it really is’.

The mentality of thinking by doing is integral to design thinking. In fact, design thinking is barely discussed without mention of its tangible and visual approach in which prototypes are built to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the ideaand to recognise alternative directions for further development. Experimentation in design thinking refers to the iterative and tangible development practice in which accumulated learning is created through iterative trial-and-error cycles. In the context of uncertainty and ambiguity, learning through experimentation is superior to an analytical approach. Continuous learning through experimentation reduces risk and improves success in the innovation process, as proposed by professor Jeanne Liedtkaof the University of Virginia.

Pushing for the iterative approach at a financial organisation

We followed four teams of professionals from a Finnish financial organisationwho were attempting experimentation for the first time working with problems such as developing a new process for improving customer experience. After two half-day workshops teaching ideation, experimentation, and a human-centered approach, these teams were coached in several sessions during their development projects. This allowed us to observe some of the potential pitfalls firsthand. We found that resistance to iteration might become one of the most significant bottlenecks in adopting design thinking methods in non-design organisations. After their first experiments, the teams denied the value in conducting further experiments or were unable to recognise the remaining uncertainties that required further testing. The prevailing attitude appeared to be that the idea is ready to be implemented if the first experiment received supportive feedback. Maintaining openness toward alternative development solutions was experienced as painful, as the following notion from a participant encapsulates: ‘Somehow we feel that we could just implement this already. – So, we did not come up with alternative ways to experiment our idea.’ Most of the teams equated experimentation with the quick implementation of ideas, as if the measure of success was how quickly the idea is implemented rather than how much the team was able to learn about and improve the idea.

This is a fundamental challenge; without iterations, gradual progress in the understanding of the problem is impossible, as is gradual development of the solution. Without iterations, accumulated learning about the challenge at hand does not occur. Additionally, without iterations, experimentation is equated with the quick implementation of ideas. This urge to converge has far-reaching effects. First, it affects how effectively the team can be mindful of the initial, upper-level problem to be solved. If the professionals deny the value of the iterative approach, they most likely will not be motivated to recognise remaining uncertainties that require further testing. Neither will they able to revert to the divergence thinking that allows them to maintain openness toward different development opportunities. This, on the other hand, results in overlooking others’ ideas for new experimentation set-ups, and therefore hinders the team from moving forward with experiments and learning about the idea at hand.

We must return to the lived experiences of professionals

The current discussion in building design thinking capability in non-design organisations heavily focuses on design methods and tools. However, without an appropriate mindset towards the nature of work of a design approach, these skills, methods, and tools might be difficult to obtain. As professor Ulla Johansson-Sköldberg and her colleagueshave noted, design thinking is sometimes presented as ‘designer’s specific methods taken out of the context as tools ready to use and ignoring the fact that the person using the tools need to have an appropriate knowledge and skills – competence that comes with training – to be able to use them’. Our findings demonstrate that adopting an appropriate mindset that allows problems to be approached in a non-conventional way plays a pivotal role. It is not sufficient to offer a workshop addressing the key ideas of design thinking and assume that the participants will then be ready to disseminate the new approach to problems in their organisation. Over the several-week journey of these novice ‘designers’, we often needed to force the teams to conduct further experiments, to reflect on the results, and to recognise further uncertainties related to their idea. We needed to consistently remind them that the idea is not yet ‘ready’ to be implemented.

Altering human behavior is difficult. We know from experience that the implementation of any new management tool or method can be challenging whether it is lean, agile, service design, etc. It would be naïve to think that this would not be the case with design thinking methods, although they appear relatively simple to adopt. Only with an understanding of the lived experiences of people adopting the central methods of design thinking are we able to offer the kind of support that it requires. Until then, we must accept that there is no shortcut to happiness.


Read more: Satu Rekonen & Lotta Hassi (2018): Impediments for experimentation in novice design teams, International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, DOI: 10.1080/21650349.2018.1448723

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