Design Thinking Starts At The Top

The impact is undeniable when a company like Apple puts so much extra effort into making its products and marketing look "cool," as well as ensuring that its look is unified and communicates the level of innovation that the organization prides itself on. And the business community clearly admires the company's dedication to overall design.

That admiration, however, does not usually translate into action; meaning that few companies put that kind of "design thinking" at the top (or even near the top) of their corporate agendas, even though an overall organizational design implementation can provide incredible benefits.

The late Bill Moggridge, director of Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, made an important point when he discussed how companies will readily employ business management consultants to study and suggest organizational change from a numbers standpoint, but then fail to follow through on that change with a visual representation of it.

Moggridge went on to say, "I think that's where design has a fresh opportunity to be influential because, as designers, we know how to create a prototype of some example that illustrates that change. We can show something. We can show an experience. We can show a design solution, and that's much more real to the management who are receiving the input than the realistically dry report."

Recently, John Gleason, founder and president of A Better View Strategic Counseling and my company, Reset Branding held our annual "D Event," which brings together experienced, senior-level corporate design and business leaders in an intimate and collaborative environment. We provide this forum to stimulate genuine conversation about this vital topic and how it relates to a company’s overall brand, because it’s a topic that’s often overlooked in corporate planning.

Roger L. Martin, in his book, The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage, articulates the problem as executives relying too heavily on analytical thinking, which only reinforces current knowledge and produces small improvements to the status quo. Design thinking, in contrast, provides the ideas that allow a company to innovate and win; it’s more of a collaborative process where creativity is welcomed, no idea is ridiculed, and the designer’s input is welcomed to help match a consumer need with what is technically feasible and a viable business strategy. A fresh, out-of-the-box attitude is brought to bear on problem-solving, rather than a strict engineering or financial perspective.

And if you only think this kind of approach works at "sexy" companies like Apple and Google, think again. Health care might be the last place where you expect design thinking to make a significant impact, but that’s just what happened at Kaiser Permanente, as documented in The New York Times. The company’s National Facilities Services group began the process, from medicine administration to the color of the carpets in their offices. "Early on, N.F.S. team members began touring several of Kaiser’s facilities… They visited both competing institutions and analogous places (like cafés, hotels and retail establishments). They interviewed all relevant stakeholders, from orderlies to patients’ family members, about their experiences, and anyone who has ever visited doctors’ offices and hospitals would nod in agreement with many of the Kaiser team’s findings," the article said. The upshot of all this research and feedback was identifying a patient’s "22 Key Experiences" (the primary moments of a patient’s care when going through the Kaiser system) and finding ways to provide an organic improvement to those areas.

The fact is that any business can commit to successful design thinking. Even Walmart has dabbled with it, to the extent that it has committed to running its operation with 100% renewable energy, causing it to leap ahead of such "cooler" companies as Apple and Ikea.

Even though design thinking requires participation from many different sectors of a business, there is no question that this is an initiative that has to be led and implemented from the very top by a management committed to the process. Unless there is a strong figure there to properly determine what shape design thinking will ultimate take, there will be no firm direction and there will be no significant follow-through.

As Ron Shaich, founder and CEO of the Panera Bread chain, says, "…the chief executive’s foremost responsibility is to identify, develop, and deploy innovations that lead to real competitive advantage. All of the other challenges that weigh on every CEO—meeting the quarter’s financial targets; enhancing the brand; creating a culture where everyone gives their best—are ultimately irrelevant if you haven’t figured out how to invent your company’s future."

Design thinking leads to that future. When you’re open to what Shaich calls "top-down innovation," you’re open to achieving the best possible results for your business—and that’s a design for success.

[Image: Flickr user Rob]

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