Design thinking: 5 contrarian lessons for leaders

Design thinking has helped my team reframe problem-solving to innovate for customers - but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Consider these five lessons learned
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design thinking how to get started 2020

Design thinking is a unique approach to problem-solving that reframes problems by focusing on understanding the users of the products being developed. Using brainstorming sessions, prototyping, testing, and other approaches, the goal is to break free from the constraints of traditional problem-solving and identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent.

Design thinking has transformed how my team and I provide innovative mobile solutions for our customers, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Here are five lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1. Focus on learnings, not your final deliverable

At Clearbridge Mobile, we’ve learned the value of quickly exploring different ideas and eliminating the bad ones before putting too much effort into refining them. However, too often product teams fail to identify why those ideas didn’t work. I’m guilty of this myself; I often make the mistake of iterating the same way for different designs without realizing that I’ve been down that road before.

[ Read also: Design thinking: 5 ways to put it to work in 2020. ]

Design thinking has taught me to stop and think. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we feel that something isn’t working. When that happens, pause and take notes: What is it that doesn’t feel right – the tone? The colors? The copy? The visual style?

Write it all down and use your notes as a point of reference for your next iteration. Keep working until you reach a version that checks off all the boxes and feels right.

2. Design thinking is not linear

There is a common misconception that design thinking is a linear process and that to be successful, teams need to follow a step-by-step process.

The exact opposite is true: Design thinking is very much non-linear, and it can begin at any stage of a project.

Design thinking can begin at any stage of a project.

Typically, the design thinking process includes five stages: Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These stages can occur in any order. As you work through a project using design thinking, you can easily move from test to ideate, where tests create new ideas for a project; or from prototype to ideate, where teams learn from prototypes to spark new ideas; or from test to empathize, where you learn about users through testing.

Working through the process in a non-linear way increases the chance of success as it helps to uncover new insights and ideas.

3. Think like a child

Constraints often give us reasons to explain why our ideas won’t work, which stops the creative process dead in its tracks.

Design thinking aims to remove all constraints – including the laws of physics, finances, etc. – from your thought process. These constraints often give us reasons to explain why our ideas won’t work, which stops the creative process dead in its tracks.

Thinking like a child eliminates these constraints, because to a child they don’t exist. I admit, it is difficult to put aside everything I know about reality (especially when it comes to how much a solution or idea might cost), but failing to do so often inhibits us from considering all possibilities.

Thinking like a child creates endless possible solutions and ensures that no one feels their idea is out of reach. Even if an idea is not feasible in the real world, it may spark an inspiration that leads to a working solution.

4. Design thinking ROI can be measured

Another common misconception about design thinking is that it does not create measurable ROI. Contrary to that belief, I’ve found that not only is its ROI measurable, but in fact, measuring your success is an important part of implementing a successful design thinking strategy.

Here are some ways to measure the ROI of design thinking:

  • The number of people upskilled and coached in design thinking
  • The number of projects that have applied design thinking
  • The impact of design thinking on employee satisfaction, determined through surveys, feedback from projects, etc.

5. Design with people, not for them

Design thinking is about developing a deep connection with the people involved in a project, including the end-user. Finding the best possible solution is a highly collaborative process that requires many ideas. You can’t design an effective solution alone. When working on a project, leaders should build a team comprised of people from different departments, with different interests and backgrounds. The best solutions result when input from different perspectives, including potential users, is included.

Keep refining your design thinking process

Design thinking is a relatively new concept to many leaders, but I believe its human-centric approach can improve how businesses solve design, processes, and other challenges. As I continue to grow and discover ways to make design thinking work for me and my organization, I hope other leaders will build on my insights to implement their own successful design thinking processes.

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

As CTO of Clearbridge Mobile, Sanjay Malhotra has built an agile team of mobile experts who have created award-winning solutions for media, telecom, fintech, healthcare, mobile payments, and QSRs.