I’ve seen a lot of people writing lately about the need for design thinking in employee learning and development programs. The current discussion has made me wonder – “What exactly is design thinking?” and “Is it useful for us regular folks or does it require an MBA to implement?”
So what is design thinking?
The concept has been around since 1969 when it was introduced by researcher Herbert A. Simon in his book The Sciences of the Artificial. But it’s unusually hard to find a succinct definition. Most descriptions tend toward the abstruse. For example, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a leading design thinking consulting house, says in an interview with Forbes, “Design thinking is all about upgrading within constraints.”
Or there are definitions too vague to be useful, such as this one from design thinking consultants CreativityatWork.com:
“Design Thinking draws upon logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning to explore possibilities of what could be and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user (the customer).”
Ok, let’s keep trying.
Mindset makes the difference.
After wading through several of these high-level descriptions, I boiled design thinking down to three key elements:
- Purpose: to come up with useful solutions to problems
- Process: a specific series of steps from problem definition to solution implementation
- Principles: a commitment to approaching the problem as a designer would
Of the three elements, the “principles” set design thinking apart from other problem solving techniques. When you’re working on a challenge, you adopt a designer’s mindset, which includes incorporating activities like these into your process:
- Active research
- Going into the field to observe customers in action
- Going through what customers do to experience what they do
- Always asking “why” and digging to find out
- Open-minded solution development
- Coming up with as many solutions as possible
- Pulling ideas from diverse perspectives
- Assessing each option equally
- Focusing on a “whole” solution, not pieces
- Early testing and revision
- Creating prototypes quickly and testing them with customers
- Letting ideas fail and evolve without throwing them out completely
- Combining and refining ideas as you go
- Implementation and baselining
- Continued measuring and testing after implementation
- Developing a baseline of performance for further improvement over time
- Commitment to the process, not the timeline
- Allowing the process to loop back on itself as needed
- Allowing the time needed to thoroughly explore the possible solutions
Taken together, these principles prioritize the customer’s experience, encourage curiosity, and welcome diverse opinions in the solution development process. Experts claim that the approach will help us identify hidden assumptions that prevent us from finding innovative solutions.
The design principles also acknowledge that innovation doesn’t happen in one brilliant flash. The best ideas sometimes have to be nurtured, refined, and expanded before they become workable solutions.
So what does this mean for my L&D program?
Design thinking proponents claim that any business can use it to “achieve extraordinary results.” But Steve Fyffe and Karen Lee, writing for the Stanford Business Insights magazine, observe that “the design thinking methodology doesn’t necessarily generate better ideas than competing methodologies.” It’s a tool in your toolbox, which may be the perfect approach for some problems but less useful for others.
Regardless of the time and resources you have to tackle a problem, you may benefit from borrowing the design mindset. Here are a few ways to incorporate the principles into your development process.
Determine the problem before the solution.
If you’re trying to improve employee performance in a specific area, don’t assume the answer is training. Look closely at the problem first. If possible, do your employee’s job for a few days to really understand where the performance gaps are coming from.
Create a whole solution, not just the training.
Once you understand the problem, you might find the solution includes some training, but also some performance support, some coaching, some leadership develop, etc. Your goal has to be the whole solution or you won’t see results.
L&D researcher Josh Bersin recently described his work with a large telecommunications company which needed to reduce turnover in the retail stores. They found that rather than more intensive training, employees needed a year-long journey of learning that provides key information when needed, helps them build a social network in the company, and coaches them through difficulties. Had they simply added more training, they would never have solved the problem.
Bring in some unusual perspectives.
You may not be able to assemble a “design team” of members with diverse backgrounds and abilities, but you can get input from unusual places. Have an accountant take a look at your training for the truck drivers. Have the sales people weigh in on development programs for manufacturing.
These folks don’t come with traditional assumptions, and they may offer surprising insights. But make sure to encourage them to share whatever comes into their heads and keep your handy “why” available to dig down further. Otherwise, they might feel that their opinions aren’t valuable because they work in another area of the company.
Test early and evolve.
We often feel that we have to create a whole training program before we can introduce any of it. But with a design thinking approach, it’s important to get your first attempts done fast and test them with users.
Criticism from users will tell you what the program needs, and you’ll spend less time developing features or topics they really don’t want. Even if you’re not using a design thinking process, you can run early beta tests of your program.
Switch from product to process.
We often see a training program as a product, which gets developed and deployed, then remains unchanged until it’s too out-dated to be useful. But with design-thinking, you see a training program as a process. It continually evolves based on user feedback and performance.
However, in order to refocus your work from product to process, you have to dismantle the traditional, bulk-training approach and find small ways to include learning as part of the workday. As Bersin notes, “In today’s always-on, distracting work environment, people simply don’t take the time to learn unless it feels relevant and it’s embedded in the work.”
For many of us, who don’t have huge L&D budgets, it’s a relief to know that you can create effective training without big courses or videos. You just need to understand your employees’ experience, identify the key skills they need, and find small, flexible ways to help them learn, such as mentoring, performance support, checklists, or habit development.
Take what works, leave what doesn’t.
So after a lot of research and study of this design thinking concept, I haven’t uncovered anything that’s going to reverse the earth’s spin on its axis. But there are some useful ideas under all that MBA-speak.
In the end, it’s up to you to experiment with these principles, pick some that work, and make them your own. At the very least, it’s a chance to try something new and possibly uncover the unexpected benefits of thinking like a designer.
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