A Design Thinking approach to scale

"Using design thinking principles, we brought notes back to the classroom and filled an entire wall with post-it notes.''

In 2013 I attended a course on design thinking at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.  I had heard of design thinking before, but I never really dived into the concepts.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a methodological approach that helps designers ideate, and satisfactorily cater to the need of the consumer. The focus is human-centric, using empathy to identify existing or potential challenges, and applying creative and effective problem-solving tools to find solutions.

Solving a transport problem with Design Thinking

A core principle of design thinking is not to default to finding a solution or solving a problem. The idea is to observe a situation first, and then brainstorm ideas (ideate) until both problems and solutions emerge. My group-mate and I were sent to the busy central train station in Hyderabad. Equipped with paper and pens we spent the morning observing everything and everyone around us. This is easier said than done!

The observation phase

As time passed, we observed that many different languages were spoken in in and around the station. In India there are 22 scheduled languages and over 121 languages spoken by more than 10,000 people! The booming IT sector in Hyderabad, meant that the city was one of the biggest recruiters in the country. And not just IT professionals. Many low skilled workers were flocking into the city for the first time, to support this fast growing IT sector.

We observed hundreds of taxis just outside the entrance to the station charging a premium to these first-time arrivals. Overwhelmed people were shuffled through the station to an area where the nearest point of service was a taxi. Our [attempted] conversations with passengers revealed that people from different parts of the country did not speak the same language and did not understand each other.

The ideation phase

Using design thinking principles, we brought notes back to the classroom and filled an entire wall with post-it notes. The constant busyness of the station. Trains packed full of people speaking different languages. The confusion, the hustling taxi drivers looking to capitalise on new arrivals. The sounds. The smells. Slowly through this ideation phase, the problems and solutions started bubbling up.

We realised that there were no visual cues for new arrivals at the station. Just lengthy written signs in one, or maybe two languages. In 2012 the literacy rates of adults over 15 was around 70% – male (78.8%) and female (59.3%). We came up with an idea to put bright visual information cues throughout the station and on the trains. We suggested pink images of information kiosks and busses.  

The solution phase

These cues would be first seen on trains and then at the stations, pointing arrivals to trusted information kiosks. Passengers could speak to a guide in their own language, getting reliable information for their onward journey.

We liked the idea; the rest of the class liked the idea, and our design thinking teacher liked the idea. Did they implement the solution? I don’t know. When I look at the all the visual social distancing signs during Covid-19 pandemic, I really hope it was.

That design thinking class in India left an impression on me. I like to take the approach of observing a situation without immediately trying to solve a problem.  I’ve brought elements of design thinking into my customer engagements.

Our approach

A customer typically engages with Saltwater Consulting to help them to scale their business. My approach is Think, Design, Implement.

During the ‘Think’ phase I go into a customer and observe everything in their business. I talk to people and gather information. Sometimes you don’t necessarily know what the end solution will look like. Going into a customer and observing how they do business, gives me insights I can piece together to help that customer in a customised manner.

Every customer wants to scale well but every customer is unique and needs a slightly different approach. Using design thinking methodologies I can start pattern matching and putting the right solutions forward for my customers.

The ‘five why’ analysis

To give an example: I worked with the CTO in a company who had an ongoing issue with their website. I asked him if they had ever done a five why analysis. They hadn’t. In many cases people tend to put sticky plasters on problems rather than identifying the root cause.  The five why analysis is a great way to get teams together to solve problems. We introduced the five why analysis and used design thinking principles. I observed the CTO working with his team to get to a root cause and apply a permanent fix to the problem.  The team introduced the five why analysis into their operational playbooks, and improved their overall communications, a key part of any business wanting to scale well.

Think Differently

Another way I like to take the think approach when I start working with customers is to get them to think a little differently about their own businesses.

In another example working with a head of software development, I asked him how much time he spends chatting to internal users of the product that they had built. He responded by saying that they normally develop features based on key customer requirements, but they don’t talk to their own internal power users about the software.

I suggested he set up a Q&A session between the developers and the internal software users and that he observe their interaction. They learned that internal users were often using complex nonstandard workarounds to make the software work for them. This feedback was invaluable to the development team allowing them to implement new features that would add more value to their customers. The software development leader went on to establish a regular office hour hosted by his development team, to allow internal users of the software to discuss features and issues. Once again, the leader thought differently about his internal stakeholders, opening up new communication channels, and ultimately improving his software.

These are just two examples of my approach to observing ways customers do things and then getting them to think differently. It’s not pure design thinking but I love the ideation phase – just putting notes onto the board and letting teams know what my observations are, before prescribing any solutions.

An impactful approach to helping businesses scale

if you want to learn more about design thinking then look up Tim Brown, chairman of the business IDEO.com. Tim’s popular TED talk will get you up to speed on the main concepts.

Saltwater Consulting is not a traditional consulting business. We observe your business, and really get to know about how your people and processes integrate before bringing a specific solution to the table. And this process enables us to help businesses scale well in an impactful way.

To learn more about how we can help you, please book a discovery call with our principle today.

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