Hitting the sweet spot

Oct 13 2013 09:45
*Ian Mann
Solving Problems With Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works, by Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King and Kevin Bennett

THE complex problems that businesses experience each day, the ones that keep the CEO up all night, are not the sort solved by linear analysis. They require creative solutions.

Unfortunately, creativity of this type is not spread evenly across a company. “Those of us who can’t part the waters need, instead, to (know how to) build a bridge,” say the authors of Solving Problems with Design Thinking.

“Design thinking” is an approach to problems that require creativity. It has its origins in a method used by designers of new products such as IDEO, a company I have referred to in previous columns.

This method of creativity emphasises the importance of diving deeply into a subject in advance of solution generation. It expands the boundaries of the problem in the search for solutions rather than defining or confining the problem to what presents itself.

Design thinking requires partners rather than taking the Lone Ranger, solo effort, approach. What “design thinking” is probably best known for is being committed to conducting real world experiments to arrive at solutions – thinking through doing, rather than thinking and then doing.

The sub-title of the book is “Ten Stories of What Works”. These stories include how IBM transfored its approach to trade shows through design thinking. Suncorp, Australia’s second-largest insurance company, drove a post-merger integration process with design thinking.

SAP overcame the problem of wide scale buy-in to its strategic planning process through a design approach. 3M used design thinking to reimagine the sales process in the materials science business. The city of Dublin, Ireland, used it as a way to improve civic engagement in revitalising urban spaces.

The Design Management Institute and researchers at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business launched a multistage research programme to assess “the prevalence and impact of design thinking in business organizations”.

Their focus was on achievements beyond the traditional design functions. They created a website that made it easy for people to nominate organisations they knew about, and selected 10 for this book.

What they are able to demonstrate is design thinking’s capability to produce new and better ways of creatively solving organisational problems.

There are four stages in design thinking.

Stage One: What is?

In this stage, a group loosely and broadly explores the current reality so that the problem is not framed too narrowly.

This attention to current reality helps to uncover unarticulated needs. It is a “deep dive” into the context rather than relying on the team’s imagination. The group gathers data, and identifies patterns and insights into what the stakeholders truly want and need.

This reduces the risk that the new idea will fail.

Stage Two: What if? 

The group can now move from the data based, exploratory stage to the development of multiple options or hypotheses for creating a new future.

Stage Three: What wows?

In this stage, choices are made about where to focus first. Here the group looks for those that hit the “sweet spot”, where the chance of a significant upside for the stakeholders matches the organisation’s resources and capabilities.

The concepts that pass this first test are good candidates for turning into experiments (or prototypes) for testing with actual users.

Stage Four: What works? 

Here the concept is applied to the real world of actual users through a small experiment. If they like it, the prototype is refined, and tested again with yet more users. This iteration goes on until the group feels confident about the value of the new idea and are ready to scale it up.

This process is illustrated in IBM’s reimagining the trade show (and in the other nine examples in this book.)

Trade shows seem the ultimate in old-fashioned ways of doing business. You set up booths and banners, and have attractive people handing out literature.

Despite trade shows' often-predicted demise at the hands of the internet, they are still a $100bn a year industry, growing at 3%.

IBM’s problem was the disconnection between these trade shows and IBM’s positioning, strategic capabilities and legacy of innovation.

IBM wanted to make their participation in trade show an opportunity for attendees to experience the company’s “Smarter Planet” initiative. This initiative was a response to the dynamic complexity of the world, and IBM’s ability to help solve problems through technology.

Using the design method, IBM’s team generated insights from a wide range of studies of human interaction. They investigated current state-of-the-art knowledge on social interactions, learning, and collaboration. They took a wide view, gathering data from experts in a variety of fields, from theatre design to military training.

They interviewed more than 100 experts in 20 fields to understand why people behave as they do, how they learn, and how to engage them.

They concluded that they needed to transform trade shows from spectacles into engaging conversation with customers that would lead to stronger relationships and better business leads.

This required IBM to design their presence at trade shows for “planned spontaneity”, and creating a comfortable space for meaningful meetings based on five themes: engage, inform, discuss, persuade, and inspire. They took cognisance of the different ways in which people learn - the visual, the auditory, and the kinaesthetic.

They wanted conversations to feel natural so they encourage the building of mutual trust and facilitate dialogue, collaboration, and co-creation. The seating they provided was similar to what you would see in a park, in a kitchen, at a dining room table or on a train, places where people have spontaneous conversations.

They ensured that people felt comfortable, so, for example, they used doubled-padded carpets in areas where they knew people would be standing. If people were comfortable standing, they would spend more time talking.

The physical environment was not the only consideration. “If you bring someone into your home, there are certain ways you conduct yourself so your guest feels comfortable. So we decided to bring clients into the space with a concierge.”

The concept was piloted at the Sibos banking trade show. This small show draws about 7 000 participants, but is among the most important financial services trade shows that IBM participates in.

In this pilot, IBM realised double-digit increases in client engagement leads, lead capture, and revenue. The number of leads during the Sibos pilot was greater than the previous two years combined. When IBM executives saw the results, they decided not to do further pilots but to scale the new approach immediately.

This book is built around 10 vivid illustrations of design thinking in organisations, and is the best introduction to the subject I have read.

Readability:    Light --+-- Serious
Insights:        High -+--- Low
Practical:        High -+--- Low

 - Fin24
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. Views expressed are his own.   

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