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The Barnes & Conti Resource Library:
Innovation Management

Applying Design Thinking to Leadership and Organizational Development

by Nelson Soken, Ph.D

Design Thinking

As a follow-up to my presentation at ATD 2018 entitled Design Thinking: Educating Corporate Leaders in Innovation and Strategic Problem-Solving with Carole Bilson, President of the Design Management Institute, I wanted to discuss further how a design thinking mindset can have a significant impact on the fast-changing Learning and Development (L&D) environment.

Based on what’s reported in various journals and studies, some of the challenges facing L&D professionals include:

According to Treion Muller in his article entitled “13 Learning And Development Reality Checks for 2018”, one of the reality checks for L&D professionals this year is, “Being Customer-Centric Equals Success.” He states: “Because as we’ve learned, the consumer of information, AKA the modern learner, is king and will determine the future of the L&D industry, so the more we are in tune with them and their ever-changing preferences, the greater chance we have of success.”

Recently, there has been a growing interest in the L&D and HR community to incorporate the design thinking mindset and practices into organizational challenges. (See "What Design Thinking Can Do for HR and L&D," "Design Thinking: 5-Steps to Design Learner Experiences that Drive Business Results," and "How To Use Design Thinking In Human Resources.") Based on my many years in research and development, product development, and organizational development, I agree that design thinking can help to provide more synchronized and aligned outcomes. The historical focus of design thinking has generally been on applying the mindset and practices to develop desirable product/service offerings for external customers in key markets. It’s time to expand the focus to our own organizations and think of our employees as end-users and customers that deserve superior experiences. Imagine the return on investment if every employee were fully engaged, had the skills necessary to get the job done, resonated with the mission and vision of the organization, and embraced diversity and inclusion with empathy and openness to different perspectives.

So, what is Design Thinking?

  • Jon Kolko, author of Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love: “A set of principles collectively known as design thinking—empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them—is the best tool we have for creating those kinds of interactions and developing a responsive, flexible organizational culture.”
  • Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of Change by Design: Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

How Can Design Thinking Be Applied to L&D and HR to Address Critical Organizational Challenges?

What is it that we are trying to achieve and is it linked to the organization’s strategy? The way you ask the question will point to different solutions. How do we get ALL employees to engage and be motivated to learn? How do we create memorable and meaningful content that employees complete and retain? How do we ensure that what we provide meets end-user needs, given so many pressures and constraints on our time and available resources? How do we get stakeholders to buy in and invest in organizational development as well as professional development for each and every employee?

Here is how a Design Thinker would address these challenges within an organization. A design thinker:

  • Seeks to question the initial problem statement and reframe it to ensure that the right question and user needs are being solved for.

    The questions we ask drive our behavior and the potential solutions we are considering, so it is critical to define the problem statement carefully. In a recent innovation training initiative, we worked with the client to refine what they believe their global challenge to be. Here is the initial and the final innovation challenge we co-created to move from global collaboration and communication to cross-boundary decision-making:

    • INITIAL: Wouldn’t it be great if we could better collaborate and communicate across global geographic locations;
    • REVISED: Wouldn’t it be great if we could reduce the time it takes to make decisions across geographic and business unit boundaries?
  • Cares about end-to-end customer experience (the user journey) and is not just focused on single-point solutions and/or tools.

    So often, organizations fall prey to bright shiny object syndrome where the magic bullet to all their challenges is a specific training program and/or technology such as micro-learning, augmented reality, or virtual reality. In an innovation engagement with a global healthcare company, we developed a comprehensive learning journey that addressed the organization’s innovation culture holistically to drive change. This included an organizational cultural assessment, identification and support of executive sponsors that defined company challenges they wanted solved, nomination of participants by leaders, leader-participant conversations, an in-person multi-media, experiential workshop experience, post-workshop cohort working groups to apply tools to real-world challenges and interval report-outs of learnings and progress thus far, ongoing coaching and relevant innovation content distributed to participants, and the development of a mobile app for continued reinforcement. Thus, we created an end-to-end learning journey experience for maximal impact and cultural change.

  • Keeps users at the center of everything and has empathy for them, seeing insights where no one else does.

    Design of learning and onboarding experiences often include a lot of great content that engages the mind but not the heart of the participant. For example, a project team that is a part of a mission-driven healthcare company with a compelling mission and a clear vision for transforming the lives of the patients they serve, wanted their technical staff to have a better appreciation of the “day in the life” of a person with incontinence. Empathy is the experience of walking in the shoes of someone else; seeing the world with the eyes of another; listening with the ears of another; feeling with the heart of another. Whatever metaphor you use, empathy is about stepping out of your view of the world and seeing it through someone else’s lens. We designed a weekend learning experience in which project team members were asked to go through an end-to-end patient journey. This involved purchasing adult diapers, wearing them and, if they were comfortable doing so, using the product as a patient would in real-life. In addition, participants were randomly texted a message during the weekend where they were asked to find a restroom within two minutes wherever they happened to be when they received the text (which is the typical amount of time a patient has when they have the urge to void). Through this immersive experience, participants could truly understand what incontinent patients experience daily. The team saw the world from a less technical viewpoint, but rather from a more socio-emotional position. It ultimately affected the way they saw potential patient products and was very powerful. The organization found the experience so valuable that they are considering using it as a potential onboarding experience for employees.

  • Seeks out multiple points of view, perspectives, and experiences to inform their design.

    Creating opportunities for people with different perspectives to share their views is a powerful way to collect a diversity of ideas and feedback on any topic or challenge. In a recent Strategic Thinking™ workshop at a technology company, participants had the opportunity to work in diverse, cross-functional groups on their real-world strategic challenges. One participant was working on a marketing challenge in which his team was developing a technology for a specific market and customer segment. During brainstorming, participants from other business units and functions came up with ideas regarding pursuing another customer segment that the participant hadn’t considered. Once the participant heard the ideas, he got up and excused himself to call his team. He later shared that his project team had totally missed this potentially larger and easier-to-pursue market segment and that without the feedback from other participants, this opportunity would never have been considered.

  • Conducts experiments and creates prototypes quickly and cheaply to make ideas concrete in order to get feedback and test the viability of concepts early and often.

    “Show, don’t tell” is a phrase that represents the power of rapid prototyping and experimentation. People generally have difficulty envisioning a concept, particularly something that does not currently exist. Prototyping and experimentation is a fast and inexpensive way to create a future state so that potential users can envision what’s to come and provide feedback that validates an idea before a company expends significant resources. It is also a good way to gain stakeholder buy-in for new product/service offerings. In a Design Thinking program that was created for a major healthcare organization, healthcare professionals who were funded to develop their new product/service offerings went through a Design Thinking Boot Camp certificate program. During the Boot Camp, they created rapid product and service prototypes to test their ideas. These prototypes provided valuable data and feedback that exposed challenges the teams would need to address. The experience also energized the teams as they quickly and inexpensively turned their concepts into a reality they could interact with and get feedback.

Adopting Design Thinking as a Practice in Your Organization

Ultimately, adopting a design thinking mindset and a set of practices takes time, reflection, learning, and coaching. It is a journey, not a training event. The goal is to shift your mindset and hone your skills so you can be equipped to define the problem, understand the user, ideate broadly from multiple perspectives, and experiment/test early and often until get it right. You meet the needs of the user by:

  • Asking the right questions and challenging your initial conclusion while being humble and assuming you don’t have the answer.
  • Looking at the entire customer journey and not just focusing on a specific tool (or “bright shiny object”) to solve a specific problem at the expense of considering the entire experience
  • Putting yourself in the shoes of the end-user and appreciating their point of view with empathy
  • Seeking multiple points of view and perspectives to ensure that all possibilities and needs have been considered
  • Experimenting with possible options early and often so you can fail fast, spend less, maximize efficiency, and succeed sooner.

As I said in an earlier article related to attention and learning as a commodity, “Investing a little focused attention on professional development today and everyday can result in success tomorrow. Take advantage of “compound interest” by preparing for tomorrow today.” As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Design thinking is an important part of an L&D professional’s toolkit and I encourage you to learn more about it, invest in further education, and look at your organization as a “market” that seeks new offerings that deliver superior employee “customer” experiences.

Are you interested in exploring the value of a design thinking mindset in your L&D and HR development practice? From our perspective, it is well worth it. Such a design process does not add time, money, and additional resources, but rather requires you to change your mindset and the way you view and execute your work to improve the quality and efficiency of your problem-solving by ultimately focusing on your end-user, your customer. Please let us know how we can help you with your Design Thinking journey in your organization. We can provide consulting support, coaching on tools, training workshops or just a chat to help you ideate. Contact Nelson Soken, for more information.

Nelson Soken, Ph.D, is CEO of N.H. Soken Consulting and Chief Innovation Strategist at Barnes & Conti

Browse the Barnes & Conti Resource Library for more articles on leadership development.

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