Business and Design Thinking

I recently attended the much heralded Design Indaba held in Cape Town. On the eve of my departure a very smart business technologist (Made up term – someone who understands both technology and business really well and how to make money out it) asked me what a growth strategist (a business guy) was hoping to achieve by attending a design conference. The answer – to learn about design and more importantly design thinking as an approach to solving real world business problems. Business has for years being arguing that innovation and creativity in thought and practice is required to drive sustainable growth. New products, services, process, technologies, business models …don’t just happen, they need to be designed! That said, business’ failure to get returns on innovation efforts and investments remains one of the largest growth dis-enablers.  The causes may be numerous ranging from bad ideas, insufficient number of good ideas, backing the wrong ideas, picking the incorrect commercialisation model, lack of execution skill or market readiness.

My experience was energising and provided some enlightening takeouts. Firstly, I believe design thinking is an immensely powerful tool for solving tough to crack business problems. My loosely fashioned definition of design thinking  is the derivation of functional and creative solutions to clearly scoped problems through a collaborative and explorative building up of ideas, prototyping, learning and recalibrating.  The solutions are very benefit and end user centric.

 Many of the solutions to problems ranging from educational challenges, social and infrastructure development, new products and services, communication were deeply functional and very innovative. I sat through many of the of the presentations wondering how the projects and underpinning design process responsible from some amazing work would ever have been given the latitude and time to produce  in a typical corporate environment.  It occurred to me that one of the cornerstone elements of the process seemed to be a willingness to accept at the outset (and for an extended time within the process) that you don’t know the answer and to simply embark on a range of potential solutions, prototyping, failing gathering learning’s and recalibrating. This tolerance for and acceptance of failure as a critical element to success is not typically tolerated within business.  A new business venture requires a definitive business case describing the problem, solution, go –to market approach that logically and financially stacks up. Yet despite all of this, my experience is that in reality the business case, strategy, business model and operational plans are scuttled very early in the customer adoption process. The reality is that the strategy, business model and go – to market tactics emerge over time finally settling when all stakeholders are perceiving and capturing some level of value.  I am currently of the belief that truly transformative design (white space thinking in business terms) is best (more likely) produced via design thinking methods than hard core left brain logic.

Secondly, the energy, participant mindset and presentation formats were significantly different to that of a normal “business” conference. What was perhaps most noticeable and refreshing is how presentations offered views into design in action – the problem, approach to finding the solution and the end result.  I felt that this was not by accident and somehow supported the ethos of design. It would seem that transformative design derived from abductive thinking demands a different mindset, culture and actions to succeed. Some of the best work was delivered by teams of diversely skilled people collaborating around ideas and learnings sharing information for the sole purpose of cracking a functional solution. Contrast this with so many corporate structures and cultures that despite their best intentions, engage in inter-functional competition, support subversive agenda’s and fail to share information.

What is interesting is that many well know universities are starting to introduce design thinking into business curriculums. Stanford has just started a design school. Early phase venturing is no longer guided by business case development but rather by business model designs. New ventures are seen as business model seekers and refiners first. Only once a viable model as surfaced (been prototyped) can real commercialisation begin. This is design thinking!