Innovate or Die

Design thinking works


Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:04 pm


One of the most dramatic developments in the creation of a new product or a new service is to begin with the customer and build innovation around “design thinking.”

Jeanne Liedtka, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, wrote in an article in the Harvard Business Review (October 2018) saying that design thinking not only works, but has also shifted the paradigm for what successful innovation is in today’s world.

Everyone has to recognize that all of us have biases. Neuroscientists point out we literally see the past and present based upon our own view of the world and our own experiences. Lawyers have long exploited the differences of witnesses who see the same event but have different recollections of what happened.

If that’s the case, how can all of us driven by habits and personal biases possibly contribute to designing whole new offerings for customers?

The answer lies in a disciplined approach now called “design thinking.” There is a step-by-step process that has to be put in place that all team members are required to follow religiously if it’s to be successful.

Stage I: Problem identification

It all starts with problem identification to ascertain opportunities for innovation. That, in turn, requires an immersion in the customer experience otherwise known as “ethnographic research.” Companies approach this from different viewpoints, but it includes not only observing customers but actually doing live videos of their experiences that are then viewed by all team members. That information is collected and becomes the springboard to new design.

Stage II: Idea generation

Once the discovery process is complete and the data is collected, it is presented to the design team, which begins the process of identifying solutions. This requires the serious identification of ideas and alternatives to address the challenges identified. Previous studies show the more ideas are generated, the better the results will be. I highly recommend a matrix be developed to prioritize ideas based upon the criteria that must be met. This matrix weights the more important criteria and assigns numerical scores. Once that’s complete, the team knows where it should begin the testing phase.

Stage III: The testing experience

Historically, testing occurred within the halls of the company, isolated from the actual potential customers and users. Design thinking has evolved and is now taking a lesson from early-stage entrepreneurs on this one. They create prototypes for “minimal viable products,” but then those are presented to customers for actual use and feedback; or they do mockups as part of experimentation.

For an example, Liedtka offers the experience of Kaiser Permanente, which tested new medical office buildings by actually hanging bedsheets from ceilings to mark future walls and then asked nurses and physicians to interact with patients to see if they had the design right. Changes were made based on what they learned.

These real-world experiments are critical to testing the viability of any given initiative. But more importantly, getting potential customers involved is the gold standard, as sometimes they become the first users once the product or service is rolled out.

Locally, the architectural firm Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc. embodies this approach to serving its customers. For more than a generation it has been able to offer state-of-the-art approaches to innovation in the design of facilities supporting a variety of sectors of the economy.

The key to Zimmerman’s culture is that “design matters.” It looks for and hires people who are intellectually creative and curious, and have a passion for improving people’s lives through their good work. Those employees are encouraged and empowered to interact with customers and each other to develop solutions to problems through their creative architectural designs.

Steve  Raasch, the firm’s president and director of health care planning, has put in place a commitment to a process that ensures patient input and customer feedback in every step of the design process.

Zimmerman used this process to forge an integrated facility for both the Froedtert Hospital Birth Center and the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Many first-of-a-kind innovations were developed and employed, all with a focus on improving patients’ lives. They came up with a shared vision that resulted in an outstanding design and architectural accomplishment across 120,000 square feet on six different floorplates. That design resulted in the company winning a 2017 Center for Healthcare Design showcase award.

Embedding design thinking into the culture of innovation is now crucial to success in the world of product or service innovation. 

Dan Steininger is the president and founder of BizStarts. He is also the president of Steininger & Associates. The firm focuses on teaching the tools of innovation to drive growth for companies in all sectors of the economy. Steininger is a former president and CEO of Catholic Financial Life and a graduate of Marquette University and Boston University's School of Law.

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