Design Thinking, Systems, The Berkeley Difference
What insights did you gain from reading Design Thinking by Tim Brown, along with Innovation as a Learning Process – Embedding Design Thinking?
Beckman and Barry’s paper on innovation, design thinking, and the learning process was an insightful conceptual framework for understanding individual paradigms within teams and how innovation can be institutionalized in different contexts. After reading the article, I was left with a much richer appreciation for different learning styles and their vital roles during unique stages of the innovation process. Oftentimes, “design” and “design thinking” bring to mind a certain type of person — someone hip, who wears cool sneakers (as evidenced by Tim Brown’s custom neon converses last Tuesday!), maybe dark rimmed glasses. But what I enjoyed about Beckman and Barry’s article is that it identified four different learning styles and how they each made distinct contributions that were all necessary to create the most complete set of imperatives and design solutions. To me, Beckman and Barry democratized the design thinking process from one where “they” (= hip, converse-wearing designers) came up with a brilliant solution, to one where people of varying backgrounds, experiences, and skillsets can all add value.
In addition, Beckman and Barry’s paper has powerful implications for teams and workplaces. Too often organizations view cross-functional or cross-department teams as sufficient inputs to fostering creativity. For example, last semester I took a civil engineering design course (Design for Sustainable Communities) where I was working on a team consisting of one mechanical engineer, one environmental engineer, one structural engineer, and an MBA. However, without having a concrete design framework for pushing the process along, we often found ourselves stuck with no “ah-has”, interesting stories, and general confusion and frustration. The individual team members all had distinct personalities (and correspondingly different learning styles) and we found ourselves at a stalemate halfway through the semester. The mechanical engineer viewed himself as more of a designer than an “engineer” engineer, and fit more closely into the diverging and accommodating style. The environmental engineer had a diverging style, while the structural engineer and I both fell squarely into the assimilating camp. Lacking someone with the converging learning style, who was able to articulate a high-level vision and goal and keep moving the team forward, was perhaps a big reason why we were stalled in the middle of the innovation process. A strong understanding of different learning styles (reflective observation vs. active experimentation, abstract conceptualization vs. concrete experience) and the accompanying design process can help companies create hotbeds of innovation and creativity within their organization.
This raises an interesting question. It seems that business school students tend towards the convergent learning style. If we are teaching business students to be less convergent – maybe even seeking out less convergent thinkers in the admissions process – then who will perform the convergent thinking role on design and development teams in the future?
I am in a rut. I don’t quite know where I am in the design process (am I even in the design process?!) with our start-up, MyChef. It feels like we are in the design process because we’ve gone from problem-selection to ideation, then to observation, then back to problem-selection, ideation, frameworks, imperatives and back again – but I don’t feel all that comfortable in the absence of linearity, so I am unclear as to how close we are to implementation. Though I am a creative person who loves to characterize myself an ‘outside the box thinker,’ loves to paint, draw, dance and sing, I can’t get outside the trap of linearity. It takes me a lot of effort to be comfortable in a world without clear direction.
What strikes me most about this week’s readings is the simple notion that if you spend time with your customers- observing them, talking to them, you have a much higher chance of a) finding a problem that actually exists, b) innovating and creating a solution that works and c) selling the thing – you’ve already got a set of customers ready and waiting that you have talked to! It seems very simple and yet is overlooked by some of the biggest companies day in and day out.
The MyChef team recognized that this past summer (after having defined a problem and solution that we knew very little about) and conducted several focus groups and interviews with people we envision as our future customers. The readings (and Sara) emphasize the importance of observation over interviewing due to the customers’ own lack of awareness, and I completely buy-in to that concept. I struggle, however, with how to actually observe our customers’ thought processes and planning decisions. Perhaps I need to think more creatively on this one.
You have zeroed in on the reason why many companies still don’t engage in deep observation of customer and user needs. It is far easier to describe than it is to do. And, many people feel uncomfortable with the notion that they are intruding on other people’s lives in the observation process. So, the question becomes how do you make others comfortable with your “intrusion”, and how do you best ask questions that allow you to get at what is going on in their minds?
Michael Barry, who teaches “needfinding” at Stanford and is partner at design firm PointForward, does a great job of describing some of the ins and outs of doing interviews and observations. He suggests that you start by making the interview feel like a conversation, that you slowly build rapport with the person before diving in, and then that you be sincerely curious to learn about the nuts and bolts of that person’s life (as it surrounds the issue you are examining). Pretending that you are from another planet and are visiting Earth for the first time can help you avoid applying your own mental models to the interpretation of what you are seeing. He also advises patience with the process. You may have to observe for some time before you begin to see patterns emerge that can provide you with insights.
I have been a management consultant over 6 years (and will be for some years to come). While the analytical reasoning and puzzle-solving skills that I’ve been practicing over those years are very effective in constructing competitive strategies, I found we consultants are very clumsy at coming up with something new. It has been some years since innovation has become the primary word among managers. Companies nowadays seem to look for the ways to fundamentally rethink, rebuild their business and the ways to build new businesses to help themselves grow out of the trap between price competition from emerging economies and sophisticated offerings from developed markets. And this is one of the reasons I came to be interested in “design thinking” which I found so far very enlightening.
Innovation, however, is one of the most loosely defined terms just like “art” is. Each company and social entity means different things with this word. For me, the interesting ambiguity about design thinking originates from this fact. Since design thinking is packaged as the major approach to innovation, the ambiguous nature of the concept of innovation, in turn, blurs the concept or potential of design thinking. What kind of innovation is design thinking effective for? Is design thinking an effective tool to create innovation only in product/service/customer experience level? Or can it be a great tool to innovate in rather broader/higher realm of a company’s business direction or business domains? Can it be a tool to incur innovative changes to the cause of a social problem rather than just certain symptoms of the problem? Without the rigorous answers to these questions, the true potential of design thinking seems to be quite ambiguous. Should we leave the answers to trial and error of those innovation companies?
In addition, there seem to be a huge potential in the combination between design thinking and traditional analytical strategy works. In a given problem, the frontier of innovation is always too vast. However, the design thinking process, if narrowly defined, seem to lack the front-end activities, meaning the foundational work of defining where we should seek the innovation. For instance, in the reading material, Shimano’s Coasting product system could be effectively developed because Shimano already defined the under-served population as their next growth platform. Defining this domain of innovation can be better done by analytical work than design thinking process. Knowing that much of business problem solving is done in an environment where stakeholders (e.g., bosses, clients, employees, etc.) exist, it is often required to ‘prove’ the scalability of the suggestion and to provide role out plan. These also seem be the places where traditional consultants can add value.
It has been really interesting to observe a firm like IDEO expand the boundaries of work from product design to space design, real estate development, business strategy, and social innovation. Personally, I would like to find the ways to connect design thinking with what I do to expand the potential of both disciplines. “Design Thinking” article was a great introduction for this but not enough to answer some questions that I have.
You raise some very important questions that need to be answered. Over the years I have observed many companies jump from fad to fad, seemingly seeking the proverbial silver bullet that will magically improve their performance or change their fate. In my opinion, this approach is destined to fail, as these companies overlook some of the fundamentals and instead yank the company around from approach to approach. Design thinking is getting a lot of air time right now in part because of the state of the global economy, the environment, etc. requires us to think differently than we have thought before.
But, design thinking as a fad will ultimately fade just as other fads have come and gone. That does not mean that we shouldn’t learn about it, or that we shouldn’t understand its basic elements – e.g., understanding others, asking why, playing and prototyping, gathering and telling stick stories – and continue to employ them with whatever words or frame we wish to put around them. Similarly, analytical thinking and approaches will also always have a role. To me this suggests that future leaders will have to be adept at balancing both – in essence planning and improvising in some balance as required by what is happening in the world around them.
Each article touches upon the necessity of observing consumers, or whomever the beneficiaries of the innovation will be, to understand exactly how they behave. It isn’t enough to just watch, however: we must see. Not only must we listen to their concerns or desires, we must hear them. I appreciated the importance placed on interpreting such inputs; internalizing them and making them our own so as to orchestrate positive change or effective solutions.
This was especially relevant given the assertion made in the “Innovation as a Learning Process” article that we must be cognizant of our own learning styles when working in a design process. I may not be the person who can frame a problem into its component parts, but I know once presented with that information I have the ability to generate solutions. My challenge, then, is to attempt to broaden my perspective beyond finding solutions; my goal is to improve my ability to find problems.
Fortunately, there is hope for me, as both sets of authors of these articles have acknowledged that we need not be permanently cast in our current roles. By leading, and agreeing to be led through, the design process, we can effectively improve our abilities to observe behaviors, frame them, develop criteria, and implement solutions.
One question that came up for me was how to reconcile these recommendations with what seems to be a predominant attitude in the MBA curriculum that managers should organize their operations around the strengths of their employees. By continually playing to our strengths, do we inhibit our growth? I was reminded of a concert I saw many years ago. Michael Hedges, a gifted guitarist, was tuning up between songs and was talking about the record label his contract was with, Windham Hill. “Our relationship is great,” he said. “They love my music. More importantly, they don’t tell me how to make it, and I don’t tell them how to sell it.” While that may work for a professional artist, I wonder how that specialization might hurt professionals working in today’s economy, especially given the necessity for innovation. How do we take these principles so well articulated by the authors of these articles and make them practical and functional within organizations? In other words, how far down can innovation be pushed?
I read a book a few years ago entitled “Ideas are Free”, (www.ideasarefree.com) in which the authors did extensive research about how many firms generate sustainable competitive advantage. A large part of that success has to do with how well the firms are tapping the ideas of their front-line workers: those on the factory floor, those who are interacting with customers, those dealing with suppliers, etc. Their thesis was that, in most cases, management needed to empower front-line workers to generate small ideas and the resources to implement those ideas. These ideas, because they are small, can’t be copied by competitors, and are easy to implement with very little negative consequences if they are not successful. They cited numerous examples in which companies have saved millions of dollars, or made tens of millions more, because they listened—and heard—their employees’ ideas and implemented them.
These managers were effectively helping their employees develop by listening to their ideas and allowing them to be implemented. By doing so, the employees not only become more invested in the outcome, but they also begin to grow beyond the confines of their own position. As this happens, they begin to adopt different styles of learning as their experience gains depth and significance, and they begin to incorporate new ways of thinking into their professional lives. In other words, ideas beget new ideas.
I am a big believer in the “ideas are free” process you describe and am glad you have chosen to link it with our design thinking conversation. Oddly enough to some, I believe that the “total quality management” movement and to some extent “sig sigma” programs are aimed at involving front-line workers throughout an organization in creatively and collaboratively coming up with ideas for process improvement, can be a form of innovation. There is no doubt that focusing on customers and their needs is valuable, but there is also great value in tapping the knowledge of those on the front lines in any organization.
Innovation as a Learning Process – My experience with Haas@Work
The reading on Innovation as a Learning Process made me reflect on my experience in joining Haas@Work program last spring. Haas@Work is a program that provides Haas MBAs an opportunity to work in teams to generate and implement innovations in actual companies. Past projects included working for leading companies like Cisco, Disney, Wells Fargo, etc. It is a great experiential learning opportunity and an essential element in achieving Haas’ main objective in developing Haas MBAs to “lead through innovation”.
The overall process lasted about a month, and it involved a series of workshops. In the first workshop, we were instructed in the process we would use in generating ideas and coming up with recommendations for the client. The process is called “Innovation Cycle”, and it is the same process described in the reading – Observations, Frameworks, Imperatives, and Solutions.
Due to limited time, however, the process was not explained much in detail and we jumped right into the actual practice. Therefore, I personally had very limited knowledge about the process, which made me question its effectiveness. Although in the end the process proved to be effective as our group eventually came up with decent recommendations and the client was very pleased with our deliverables, the initial doubt about the process decreased my morale a little bit. This is one of the areas where I felt that Haas@Work program could improve on by giving participants more knowledge about the process so we know how to apply it in the most effective way.
Also, the reading suggested that people with different learning styles would perform well in different steps. The knowledge of which type of learning style each team member has would be useful as it would help in the team formation, as well as help everyone to know where they stand in the team and how they can best contribute by leveraging what they do best. For me, I feel that I learn best through logical reasoning, or as called “assimilating style”. If I knew this before I joined the workshop, I would contribute more during the Frameworks step (Haas@Work calls this step “Insights”). Also, the team could be organized in such a way that people who are best at each step should lead the discussion in that step. This will allow the leader to guide the team by using more effective method in achieving the results of that step as he/she knows best how to perform that step.
After I read this article, I understood more about this so called Innovation Cycle and the reasoning behind each stage. I rethought through my experience in Haas@Work and more appreciated the well-structured process that the program used. With better understanding in the process, I can use the process more effectively to generate ideas and implement innovation creation in my future career.
You raise an interesting question about how best to learn “design thinking.” Should you try to teach the process intellectually first, or should you just throw people into it and see what sticks?
I’ve read this article before, but looking at it through the prism of our current course has made it more relevant. Before, I thought about Design as something for others – I’m a MBA, consultant, history major, and terrible artist. Having had a few weeks of “you can be a designer too” indoctrination (and I say that in a very appreciative way), I read the article with more personal interest this time. How can I embed design thinking?
Design thinking needs to be Human Centered
This is the most impactful takeaway for me. I’ve heard it before and saw it first hand in a trip to IDEO. It’s obvious when you think about it: of course a product becomes more impactful when it’s actually designed for the user. But I’m not sure that I understand the approach of paying more attention to the “Extreme users”. What about the 80-20 rule? Or is the idea that it’s the extreme users that will proselytize about your product/service, so you want to cater to them? Are extreme users always a business’s core?
Design isn’t just Beautification
The idea is that it’s no longer enough to just bring designers in at the end, to repackage an existing product or service. Every time I think of this, I visualize a city planner. Think about Governors’ Island in New York. That they’re spending years on different design options, instead of building functional buildings and then adding the lipstick later, means that the space will be that much more useful when it’s opened. And as we learned on the first day of New Product Development, the early stage decisions can account for 60-70% of the ultimate cost of a project; it’s clearly better to integrate design thinking at the start and make sure users get what they’re looking for.
Tell more stories
I keep hearing this (this article, blog postings, Made to Stick). And I’m trying. Every time we revise the pitch for Refill Revolution (our startup) we’re trying to come up with more stories. I’m finding analogies to be the most impactful, though am trying to create the story of the everyday user.
Ditto the last point, in that it’s incredibly relevant to our startup. Brown says that you need to get an idea or product to a point where the feedback is useful – then open it up for play. Prototyping too late means the business may be too invested in one path and/or the user will be more hesitant to give feedback, as the product will have an air of completeness. Another way of thinking of this idea is releasing the Minimum Viable Product (http://startuplessonslearned.blogspot.com/2009/08/minimum-viable-product-guide.html). One definition of the MVP: “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
Here’s the deal with the “extreme users” stuff. First, Eric von Hippel at MIT has shown that “lead users”, which is one version of “extreme users”, often develop new solutions before the company whose solution they are building upon. The data from his research are pretty compelling – there are industries in which the majority of new designs come from users, not from the companies that end up producing them.
But, more broadly, extreme users are used to really understand the dimensionality of a market. They represent aspects of a market and thus user needs that may not be apparent in the typical “average user” described by most market research. In doing so, they allow a design team to see needs that it might not otherwise see. But, these “extreme users” are used for design purposes, NOT (necessarily) to segment a market. OXO Good Grips, for example, was not targeting people with arthritis when it designed kitchen tools with more comfortable grips. But, it was insight from understanding an arthritic chef that led to its very popular designs.
What designers are seeking is BEHAVIORAL differences, not just demographic differences, that distinguish people in a target market so that their designs can reflect those differences. The design of a website, for example, might consider people who highly value their privacy as well as those who are less concerned, people who are extremely busy and have little time to surf versus those who are not, people who like to maintain tight control over their online communities, and those who don’t. I suspect there are similar sets of behavioral differences within the Refill Revolution target market. Examining them will provide different insights for your design process.
What I loved in these two readings was the proposition that innovation and ideas generation does not happen best by a lone individual with a genius creative mind, but by a team of people with complementary but vastly different approaches to learning, thinking and expressing ideas. And also that even learning styles are learned! Rather than being born with a talent for generating ideas, or for technical tasks, or assimilating and ordering information, instead your environment, experiences and education can all help to shape your individual learning preference. This idea has a huge impact on understanding the role of a leader in an organization too, since it could suggest that those best at providing vision and direction are the ‘chameleons’ – the people who are best at adapting their learning style to the demands of a particular situation, cycling through the full innovation process to generate the most appropriate solution. It could also suggest that the best leaders are those who are most adept at identifying people’s different learning styles, bringing them together and managing the tensions and frustrations inherent within a disparate team to ensure each contributes equally to the innovation process.
The other theme that struck a chord was the description of the ethnographic method of consumer research, particularly understanding meaning through observing and understanding culture. Can there be any better place in the world to be an active participant observer than at Haas, when the class has come from all over the globe? Reading the description of participant observation, it seemed to me to describe exactly what happens at Haas as a normal element of daily living. I’m constantly caught out by my assumptions of what is universally known vs what is culturally unique – words or phrases I presume everyone uses and which turn out to be colloquial; attitudes, activities and habits I have always thought to be the norm and which in fact are anything but; and the privilege of participating in fellow classmates’ cultural and religious traditions. Maybe that’s partly why Haas attracts a high number of innovative, entrepreneurial students!
Another way to think about the leadership question is to imagine that different people should lead a team through different parts of a process – matching their learning style to the part of the process where it is best needed. Why not let an assimilator lead the process during the framing and reframing stage? Does there need to be just one leader?
Most companies or business schools these days, claim to differentiate from competition through innovation. Leading through innovation is at the heart of the Haas School of Business. But what does it mean exactly? Sara Beckman and Michael Barry have figured that out.
The innovation process is broken down into four steps: observation, framework, Imperatives, and solutions. The observation phase aims at identifying the true needs of users, while the framework phase’s goal is to come up with a new way of solving the problem that users face. In the imperative phase, the innovation team converges to decide on the most important goals that the solution needs to accomplish. Finally, the solution appears and is evaluated through prototyping.
Each of these four steps requires different mindsets. Four learning styles have been identified as the most suited for each step: diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating respectively.
Therefore, leading through innovation requires first assembling the right mix of people, and then leveraging the diversity of the team to execute the above-mentioned process.
But the Haas School of Business doesn’t stop there. It offers opportunities to students to put that theory into practice through what it calls “experiential learning”.
During my first year at Haas as an MBA student, I was lucky enough to be involved in Haas@Work with the Clorox company. We put the innovation process to work to come up with a set of recommendations to solve a problem that Clorox was facing. I was impressed by the results we came up with in a very short amount of time. Worth mentioning is the role of the facilitator who helped us transition from one phase to the other. Over the summer, I was one of the few students who actually implemented a subset of those recommendations, by working even closer with Clorox.
At Haas, we don’t just talk about innovation. We are actually offered various opportunities to put innovation to work. Haas@Work being only one option.
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