How Design Should Meet Business

The content of this blog appears in my article published this month in the Industrial Designer’s Society of America’s quarterly INNOVATION magazine for Summer 2017 to be launched during their National Conference in Atlanta this month.

You likely understand design thinking and may use its human-centered method for problem-solving, but in order to have success in your disruptive future, it needs to be much more than that. Design thinking is a different way of problem-solving that brings in the human factor, aiming to empathize with users to understand their needs, involve them in the problem-solving process, ingeniously build on their feedback and verify relevant solutions with them.

In recent years, corporate attention is profoundly focused on innovation everywhere, and design thinking is getting sprinkled into boardroom conversations, but it still is often misunderstood. The process must fit the mission and principles of the company in order for those methods to be effective. No amount of design speak is going to make an incorrectly deployed process work in the common business environment. Hint: that’s when designers need adult supervision.

Let’s take a closer look at this. Suppose there are two kinds of people in our equation with totally different characteristics: analytical and intuitive thinkers. Business people are said to be analytical thinkers. They seek, hold and refine knowledge plus data to optimize processes, predict results and calculate return on investment so everything will proceed on plan. They don’t like any enigmatic states,apply inductive reasoning (proving what is already known) and deductive logic (proving what should happen) to analyze the past experiences for predicting the future.

Businesses look for reliability. Designers are said to be intuitive thinkers. They tend to see things differently and are concerned with how things should or could be. They are comfortable with open-ended states and are happy to explore new areas with possible solutions based on empathy, needs and emotions (of course embedded in functional utility).

Designers look for rationality with a twist of creativity.

Applying only one of these two types of divergent thinking will not advance knowledge or derive success. Analytical thinking is based on past data, so we can hardly imagine that applying only this kind of thinking will come up with something genuinely new.

I could write a whole other article on the differences between creativity and innovation, but in this model, let’s suffice to say that creativity is simply the generation of multiple options and innovation is simply using those ideas for improvements. Solely intuitive thinking might also have some risks like cognitive bias where perception misdirects genuine rationale.

As a profession, we can no longer think that design solves everything. We need to embrace the broader context of business to develop the acumen to create disruptive innovation that has a higher aptitude for success. Your business will be resilient.

For example, in the Altitude Studios of Accenture, design thinking is amplified with entirely new competencies to redefine corporate missions and product strategy through rigorous business acumen. This combination helps clients realize a new future, one they wouldn’t get to on their own and one that has a better likelihood for positive impact on growth. This new approach is a response to the increasing complexity of integrating leading technology in the prevailing business environment where competition can come from anywhere to disrupt even the largest of institutions.

Consumers need help making sense of this complexity and companies need competitive strategies through relevant differentiation. You know this stuff. People need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive and pleasurable. How often do we create what seemingly appears to be a brilliant product only to have our clients crush it into dust with bad implementation, poor supply chain operations, zero marketing effort, a clunky business strategy, outdated enterprise architecture or unrealistic pricing models? Imagine improving outcomes without depending on another party integrating very distinct approaches to a problem.

As designers, let’s embrace analytical thinking and executional excellence and eagerly enhance our intuitive thinking with innovation, rigor and speed.

Check out these five principles to consider for strengthening your position in a high-stakes corporate world:

1. Approach a problem using both sides of the brain. Create a balanced approach to problem-solving or wind up with a mismatch of objectives, solutions to the wrong problems or new ideas that will never get implemented. All equations need to be balanced for resolution and harmony. Unbalanced equations cause chaos and stress various parts of the system, leaving unresolved solutions. At its core, an effective approach improves the relevance of the solutions that organizations can deliver to their customers, as well as the manner and speed with which they can create them. Let designers be intuitive and executives be analytic—just learn to integrate them.

2. Avoid too much design speak. Even the phrase, “design thinking” is not mainstream enough for there to be a common understanding of its meaning. Of course, misunderstanding leads to turmoil and sometimes catastrophe. It should be no secret that analytical and intuitive thinkers can struggle to communicate with each other, much the same way doctors with patients and lawyers with clients do.

We have all experienced a situation where a professional services provider has explained a simple situation with unfathomable terminology leaving us more frustrated and confused than before. Based on natural empathetic tendencies, it is more likely that a designer will learn and use business speak than an analyst will learn and properly use design terminology.

3. Build a strong business case. Project management is naturally complicated, but it can be disastrous if you don’t have sufficient buy-in from the right parties. As expertise is offered throughout the process, it is important that the advice is thoroughly explained. Companies will often pursue something that you don’t think is a good idea. When those situations arise, rather than just letting something happen, take the time to demonstrate why it is important and what the potential impacts can be.

Designers sometimes default to explaining their point of view subjectively, which can lead to an exchange of diverging or opposite views. Businesses are about stability and reducing risk, so tie research back into the reasoning and bring together the benefits, disadvantages, costs and risks of the current situation and future vision so that executive management, with authority, can decide if the project should move forward as planned. Your business case should describe your vision of the future, and demonstrate the value and benefits the project brings to the business.

4. Understand the difference between teamwork and collaboration. A problem occurs when collaboration and teamwork are mistaken for the same thing. When a group functions as a team, they are working as individuals. Everyone has their identified task, which contributes to the outcome. A successful team depends on having a strong leader to guide the team toward the goal.

With collaboration, the group has to not only work together but think together too. The end product comes from the efforts of the group. This means collaborators are equal partners with no distinct leader. Collaborators have to trust each other, respect the opinions of others and engage in negotiations toward the final solution.

The best collaborators are not just creative; they are flexible. They know when to let other ideas take the lead. Most international institutions have team members all over the world. Even if they use the latest methods and technology to interact, the best they can do is share documents and presentations and maybe hear voices or glimpse an occasional face. For sure, teams are important, but innovation is best served through integrating teams into collaborative behavior. In my opinion, the face-to-face studio model is more effective than conference calls and sharing documents online. This also accelerates adoption by having members co-create.

5. Embrace failure and change. Accenture research has found that high-performing organizations have more change taking place—and at a faster pace—than their lower-performing counterparts. Encourage experimentation and prototyping by connecting important elements of design (e.g., elegance, sensitivity, continuous and rapid iteration and an empathy for how people engage the world) within the context of the business, which allows leaders to quickly understand the feasibility and implications of their decisions. Product development is no longer about designing things customers want. It’s about designing solutions that give customers the outcomes they need—no one really wants to buy a saw, they actually desire two pieces.

In this very different environment, business leaders know they need to adapt, but questions remain about how they can develop these attributes fast. Sometimes the business environment is so volatile that a company must experiment with multiple paths in order to survive. A 100%  success rate is rare, so failure is inevitable, but useful. Teach your business counterparts how to create, learn, improve and repeat. The failures will no longer be classified as such, but will be classified as learning opportunities—just make sure you have enough runway to get to a meaningful place. Do it as efficiently as possible so that a shutdown or an effort to pivot to another is not a resource-hungry disaster.

When design meets business using balanced efforts, the likelihood of transforming a business with truly disruptive ideas will produce superior outcomes. Although critically important in an Innovation Economy, design as the sole tool to solve problems will create a fractured path. Integrating intuitive and analytical thinkers into the process will reduce the perceived risks and improve the odds for proper implementation.

If you would like to discuss this further please reach out, or share your comments below.

Brian Matt

Posted By: 

Brian Matt

Founder & Chairman