How to make the case for design thinking

Need to convince others of the value of design thinking? Use these 10 strategies
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You may struggle to persuade the business – or even those in IT – on the value of design thinking. “Usually, both are looking for immediate, tangible results. To them, the idea of exploring a problem can seem vague, because who knows what you’ll uncover or how long it will take when you start to explore,” says Litha Ramirez, executive director of the experience strategy & design group at digital transformation agency SPR. “It is understandable since the pressure to show outcomes quickly in this hyper-competitive market are very real.”

Larger organizations can be particularly hard audiences. “The more 'stuck in their ways' an organization is, the more the power-brokers won’t be willing to change,” says Dean Pipes, CIO at TetraVX. “It dooms the cultural and methodological outcomes.”

People may be skeptical of something that seems to them to be a creative or brainstorming exercise only.

Some individuals may not appreciate the value of the empathy-based research methods employed in design thinking. Other people may be skeptical of something that seems to them to be a creative or brainstorming exercise only. “IT organizations, in particular, struggle with adopting design thinking-practices, mainly because they’re often structured to solve problems and tasks already defined by others, as opposed to generating ideas to drive innovation,” says Alessandro Svensson, head of the innovation lab at graph database maker Neo4j.

[ Design thinking can be a tough concept to articulate. Read also: How to explain design thinking in plain English. ]

However, design thinking can offer a real and, often, relatively immediate return on investment. Here are 10 ways IT leaders can make the case for adopting a design thinking mindset and methods.

1. Start small with design thinking

It’s ironic that some organizations have made huge bets right out of the gate, when the ethos of design thinking is ‘experiment and test.’

Organizations do not need to make big bets on design thinking to see returns. “It’s ironic, actually, that some organizations have made huge bets right out of the gate, when the ethos of design thinking is ‘experiment and test,’” says Mike Roberto, management professor at Bryant University and author of "Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets."

“Moreover, teams do not have to embrace the entire methodology at first. They can start by focusing on certain elements of the process.” They might begin by adopting some field research or end user techniques or embracing a prototyping philosophy. “Pick a relatively manageable problem, assemble a team, and give design thinking a test drive,” advises Roberto. “Strive for a small win. Then share the story of those positive results. Win some allies and, in so doing, build some momentum in the organization around design thinking. Then move on to some more challenging projects.”

2. Manage expectations

Never sell design thinking as a silver bullet. “It is a framework for problem-finding and problem-solving. And as mentioned before, it is a cultural and mental shift, not just procedural,” Ramirez says. “So heralding it as a quick and easy fix for everything will only yield bad results and turn the most supportive individuals in your organization into cynics.”

3. Show, don’t tell

Ramirez facilitates half-day workshops with executive leadership teams to demonstrate design thinking methods and outcomes. “By asking them to use the design thinking framework, we got them thinking and talking about the assumptions and ideas they all carried in their heads about operations and processes in their organization,” Ramirez says. “More importantly, we got them to problem-finding instead of problem-solving, which they had been doing with a technology first approach.”

After such an exercise, a team can turn the ideas into a “lo-fi, prototyped concept” which will be shared with end users before finalizing it for development. “End-to-end, by using a design thinking process, the team will likely spend a quarter of the time designing with better outcomes,” Ramirez says. “This is because they will have tested and validated the problem before incurring the expense of developing a tool.”

4. Do the math on design thinking

One of the biggest benefits of design thinking is that it can save time and money. “One of the core foundations with design thinking is the concept of fast prototyping, which allows you to go from ideation to testing solutions much faster than you normally would,” Svensson says.

Articulate the cost and time savings a design thinking approach would deliver on a typical project. “Deploying a new application that hasn’t been through a design thinking approach is likely to require more deployments to achieve full adoption and achieve the expected benefits,” says Michael Cantor, CIO of Park Place Technologies. “That time can be better spent up front in design thinking, to get the design closer to its desired end state. It will also save time in the organizational change management steps necessary for deployment.”

5. Consider a negative business case

Is revenue at risk? Is employee engagement dangerously low?

Sometimes presenting the case of what is at risk if the organization does not pursue design thinking can be more powerful. Is revenue at risk? Is employee engagement dangerously low? Have current approaches prevented us from keeping up with industry disrupters? “The case for inaction is well written on the walls of dying (or gone) giants,” says Pipes. “It isn’t a fun story to tell, but it is imminent and overdue.

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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