The Right Way to Lead Design Thinking

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Christian Bason and Robert D. Austin for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

*     *     *

Anne Lind, the head of the national agency in Denmark that evaluates the insurance claims of injured workers and decides on their compensation, had a crisis on her hands. Oddly, it emerged from a project that had seemed to be on a path to success. The project employed design thinking in an effort to improve the services delivered by her organization. The members of her project team immersed themselves in the experiences of clients, establishing rapport and empathizing with them in a bid to see the world through their eyes. The team interviewed and unobtrusively video-recorded clients as they described their situations and their experiences with the agency’s case management. The approach led to a surprising revelation: The agency’s processes were designed largely to serve its own wants and needs (to be efficient and to make claims assessment easy for the staff) rather than those of clients, who typically had gone through a traumatic event and were trying to return to a productive normal life.

The feedback was eye-opening and launched a major transformation, Lind told us. But it was also upsetting. Poignantly captured in some of the videos was the fact that many clients felt harmed by the agency’s actions. One person half-joked that he would need to be fully healthy to endure the stress of interacting with the agency. (The design team was dismayed to discover that during the claims process, clients received an average of 23 letters from the agency and others, such as hospitals and employers.) Lind’s staffers had won productivity awards for the efficiency of their case-management processes and thought of themselves as competent professionals. They were shocked to hear such things from clients.

Lind decided to share the interview videos with employees across the organization, because their expertise and buy-in would be needed to develop solutions. They, too, were shocked and dismayed. Lind worried that many of them were taking it too hard. She wanted them to be motivated, not disabled. It was a moment that called for leadership. Her organization looked to her to help it process this troubling information and figure out what to do. What she did next would determine whether people rose to the challenge of transforming how they helped clients or sank into demoralized frustration.

Even more than other change-management processes, design thinking requires active and effective leadership to keep efforts on a path to success. Much has been written, in HBR and elsewhere, about how organizations can use design thinking for innovation (see “Design Thinking,” HBR, June 2008, and “Design Thinking Comes of Age,” HBR, September 2015). Our in-depth study of almost two dozen major projects within large private- and public-sector organizations in five countries suggests that effective leadership is critical to success. We focused not on how individual design-thinking teams did their work but on how the senior executives who commissioned the work interacted with and enabled it.

Insurance agency staffers were shocked to hear clients’ negative comments.

Typically, leaders sponsored project teams—composed of external consultants or in-house specialized units—that worked with a subset of employees to generate solutions that were eventually implemented more widely, often across the entire organization. In some cases, when change would involve different areas of an organization and the core team lacked expertise in their processes, the project expanded to include people in those areas—an approach that also helped secure their buy-in. In most cases the leaders who commissioned these projects had no prior experience with design thinking. Although some were involved more directly than others, all were looking to the approach to help them achieve their strategic objectives.

Why Strong Leadership Is Crucial

“Design thinking” can mean different things, but it usually describes processes, methods, and tools for creating human-centered products, services, solutions, and experiences. It involves establishing a personal connection with the people—or users—for whom a solution is being developed. Designers seek a deep understanding of users’ conditions, situations, and needs by endeavoring to see the world through their eyes and capture the essence of their experiences. The focus is on achieving connection, even intimacy, with users.

But to employees long accustomed to being told to be rational and objective, such methods can seem subjective and overly personal. Of course, businesses want to understand their customers—but design-thinking connections with customers can feel uncomfortably emotive and sometimes overwhelmingly affecting.

The challenges don’t end there. Another potentially unsettling aspect of design-thinking methods is their reliance on divergent thinking. They ask employees to not race to the finish line or converge on an answer as quickly as possible but to expand the number of options—to go sideways for a while rather than forward. That can be difficult for people accustomed to valuing a clear direction, cost savings, efficiency, and so on. It can feel like “spinning wheels”—which in a way it is.

As if that were not enough, design-thinking approaches call on employees to repeatedly experience something they have historically tried to avoid: failure. The iterative prototyping and testing involved in these methods work best when they produce lots of negative results—outcomes that show what doesn’t work. But piling up seemingly unsuccessful outcomes is uncomfortable for most people.

Enduring the discomfort of design thinking is worth it, because great new possibilities for change, improvement, and innovation can result. The truth is that the same aspects of design-thinking methods that make them difficult for employees to handle are also the source of their power.

Consequently, employees who are unfamiliar with design thinking (usually the majority) need the guidance and support of leaders to navigate the unfamiliar landscape and productively channel their reactions to the approach. Our research has identified three categories of practice that executives can use to lead design-thinking projects to success: leveraging empathy, encouraging divergence and navigating ambiguity, and rehearsing new futures.

*     *     *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Christian Bason (@christianbason) was for eight years head of MindLab, a cross-governmental innovation unit in Denmark that involves citizens and businesses in developing new solutions for the public sector. Since November 2014 he has been chief executive of the Danish Design Centre.

Robert D. Austin is a professor of information systems and the faculty director of the Learning Innovation Initiative at Ivey Business School. He is also a coauthor of The Adventures of an IT Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016).


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: