Author Topic: Design Thinking: 5 Things I Learned from Putting Pulp on Paper  (Read 899 times)

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Offline daftandbarmy

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“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs

To paraphrase Tim Brown, IDEO founder and a globally recognized thought leader on the subject “design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with a) what is technologically feasible, and b) what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” In other words, it’s ‘Design Doing’: engaging people, pictures, prototypes, and other practical, team based learning approaches to solve tricky business problems.

Berlineaton employs Design Thinking principles and methods in all of our practice areas. My area, the Continuous Improvement practice, tends to use it more often in connection with the business process improvement work that forms the core of our offerings to clients. Over many years of delivering these types of projects I have noticed that the more client teams engage their largely latent, yet powerful, visual learning strengths, the more enduring and effective are the project results.

Recently, we have had the opportunity to work with one of Canada’s largest forest companies, and their pulp division, to help them prepare for a large information system implementation program. Working closely with a cross enterprise Design Team, using big flipchart wall charts and sticky notes, we mapped out and redesigned the full span of their corporate processes from ‘Chip truck to China’. During this experience we introduced them to a variety of process mapping and other visual and team oriented activities to help develop a redesigned and improved business process, as well as a guiding vision, mission, values and goals.

The results have been inspiring. For them, because they have worked diligently to develop a strong, shared understanding of the future and how to get there from here using simple but effective tools they’ve never been exposed to before. For us, because this client took to our somewhat unorthodox approach to problem solving like the proverbial duck takes to water.

Why is it that these simple visual tools can be so powerful in helping people solve complex business issues? How can they be utilized more often to crack tough problems? Here are five things that struck me as important takeaways from the experience of helping my clients put ‘pulp on paper’:

1.Design thinking and visual problem solving skills come naturally to just about everyone

Ever seen or heard of cave drawings? That’s at least how old design thinking approaches are: about 40,000 years. That’s not to say that humans weren’t solving problems visually in other ways within the three million year period before that, and I’m sure that the Neanderthals were probably explaining themselves to their peers by drawing in the dirt with sticks just like we do now, there just isn’t a lot of evidence right now to support that theory. Regardless, design thinking principles are deeply, naturally embedded within the human condition. If you don’t think that you have those skills, just check out your last doodle.

What I have learned is that anyone can draw and given 1) the right opportunity and creative freedoms, and 2) some simple tools, just about every one of the thousands of clients we have engaged with over the past 20 years shows a natural affinity for explaining themselves using drawings or visual cues of one kind or another. We should leverage that innate skill more often to solve tough issues.

2. To get the best out of Design Thinking we must overcome the fear of ridicule

Here’s a bold statement for you about our prevailing workplace culture based on years of observation: those who try to solve problems using simple drawings are often thought of as simpletons.

Sadly, the modern workplace encourages us to try to impress our colleagues by demonstrating great feats of complexity, presented in a polished and professional manner, to prove how much smarter we are than everyone else. PowerPoint, an invaluable visual learning tool, has come to be derided by many largely as a result of many of us who try to pack a thesis load of information onto each slide. Because of this unintended connection between perfection and design thinking, many are afraid to engage in explaining themselves visually for fear of ridicule by their colleagues. Conversely, some of the most important ideas conveyed during many of our projects could literally be described as enhanced stick man drawings. Facilitated the right way, it’s the ideas that become the most important output, not the drawing itself.

What I have learned is that the atmosphere you establish for any continuous improvement effort is even more important than the more technical tools and resources provided for solving problems. If you can do your work within an open and judgement free environment, you will always get better results with a Design Thinking approach. Conversely, overly critical work environments can crush the visual, and other kinds of, creative juices out of any team.

3. Walls and windows are more important than tables and chairs

As I have described in a related article ‘Spaced Out: Put the Room Back into Meetings’ bad meeting rooms can kill creativity, fast. When deploying a Design Thinking approach it’s important to ensure 1) enough room to move about freely, as well as sufficient wall space for flipchart maps, and 2) natural light. In my experience this is one of the toughest paradigms to overcome when working with new clients who don’t really ‘get’ us yet. The prevailing workplace culture is one that reflects workplace based command and control relationships developed in the Industrial Age. In most meeting rooms this culture shows up in the form of a giant table in the middle of a dark, windowless room featuring high backed wheeled chairs, or, as I like to call them, straightjacket chairs.

I have learned that, to get the best out a Design Thinking approach, it’s critically important to get rid of the big tables and chairs, put a lot of flipchart maps on the walls, then, looking outwards versus inwards, doodle your way to business improvement.

4. Apply the Rule of Threes

Another paradigm inflicted upon us from the Industrial Age is the perception that it is really, really important to get something right first time, or don’t even bother trying (see above re: ridicule). Because you are deploying highly creative approached to problem solving during Design Thinking activities, I find it’s more important to plan to redesign three times. 

First, draw out what the current process looks like, literally, from the point of view of you, your staff, your clients and other key stakeholders. Then develop Redesign Version 1. I call this ‘Status Quo Plus’ because, although it’s usually a step in the right direction, it’s not usually a big enough improvement to achieve client goals. Challenge yourself to do even more during Redesign Version 2: the ‘Evolutionary’ redesign and, following that, on to Version 3: The ‘Revolutionary’ redesign. During this process you will find that the Design Team gradually become better at describing future, possibly unknown, improvements and how those could play out within the business successfully. Concurrently, you will have designed a step by step approach to implementing your future vision from the current reality to the Revolutionary future.

5. Have some serious fun

Unhappy people don’t tend to be too creative. As a result, I believe that it’s important to have some fun to get the best out of Design Thinking projects. There are a myriad of things that you can do to introduce some kind of fun during what can be long and tiring Design Team meetings. It helps if the activities are aligned to project deliverables in some way, but it’s not critical: design a brave new world using giant sized Lego blocks, act out your future vision in small teams, or design a coat of arms to brand your project.

The most important part about having some serious fun is to provide a break, of course, but to also formally introduce one of our most basic human bonding behaviours to a potentially arduous and dry, really valuable, project.

Richard Eaton is a co-founding partner of Berlineaton and a senior management consultant with over 20 years’ experience facilitating significant and positive culture shifts within large organizations and complex human systems.
"The most important qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation. Courage is only second; hardship, poverty and want are the best school for a soldier." Napoleon