by Emanuel Brown

For nearly four decades, design thinking has been acknowledged as an invaluable method for navigating and solving challenging business problems. Like anything that's been around for a while, it has also earned its fair share of detractors partly because the discipline has not been appropriately adopted across organizations. 

While certainly not a perfect system, we feel optimistic about the future of design thinking especially as appreciation for the discipline becomes more mainstream.

Design thinking for transformation

All business are, or should be, obsessed about transforming themselves to stay relevant and thrive.  For many, that involves a high degree of focus on digital transformation given the fact that our worlds are powered by technology. When we work with companies on these challenges, design thinking is at the forefront.  We recognize its power to address the missing part of the conversation…the focus on people. 

Ultimately, it is people who are most affected by the tectonic shifts in our technology-driven marketplaces and who are most necessary to help business reap the promised benefits. Yet organizations tend to ignore the human scale of these shifts, relying instead on software and systems to stay relevant or outflank their competition.

In the digital transformation programs we lead, we notice a high propensity towards three challenges that can undermine the success of the work: 

  • Barriers to collaboration (operational, technical or cultural) that impede the fluidity of idea flow which is vital to realizing the benefit of transformation
  • Incentives towards incrementalism that limit the ability for of the organization to achieve the step-change they are seeking
  • Lack of imagination to address the needs of customers and those within the organization who serve them.

Ultimately, these are human factors that point to fertile ground.

Want growth? Think like gardeners.

Enter design thinking. To navigate the human impacts of transformation this big and complex, design thinking can shift mental models and engagement styles.  If we think like gardeners, we are more inclined to understand the need to navigate environments and ecosystems to cultivate the conditions for growth.

Design thinking – with all its tools, techniques and mental models – is perfectly dispositioned to lead organizations through this evolution in the following ways:

  • It builds empathy inside the business so empathy can be experienced through the business
  • It nurtures collaborative problem-solving abilities
  • It generates potentially breakthrough solutions
  • It instills a growth mindset that creates more comfort with navigating change
  • It engages teams and helps light a creative fire that grows inside the organization.

Recently, we were invited to facilitate a series of design thinking sprints focused on a set of critical business challenges within a leading regional children’s hospital and health network.

We were brought in by the executive team to apply design thinking to the organization’s most intractable patient experience challenges. Over the three-day sprint, clinicians, nurses and administrators worked through a series of tools and methods to empathize with patients, families and care teams, frame the underlying challenges, ideate to design creative solutions and prepare for prototyping and testing.

This project highlights a fundamental reason to bring design thinking into client engagements where more conventional consulting techniques would have likely been employed: inclusiveness is a strategic asset.

Cultivating a culture of connection

Empowering client teams to problem-solve together in new and sometimes unorthodox ways is not only a privilege but also an opportunity to positively impact the organization’s culture and ability to thrive in the future.  We’re not just helping surface solutions; we’re impacting culture and growing capabilities.

In the face of a rapidly changing opportunity landscape, businesses need all the leverage they can get. They need a culture inside the organization that’s capable of sustaining meaningful relationships with customers.  Once design thinking is integral to their transformation tool kit, the customer is always front and center.