Design thinking is less abstract than it sounds and these days, more organisations are using its protocols to drive innovation, discover ideas and create winning solutions. NUS-ISS lecturer Dr Jan Auernhammer explains

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People often asks what design thinking entails. Simply put, design thinking is a methodology of problem solving that relies heavily on human empathy and is a creative mindset. It combines divergent and convergent thinking to enable innovative solutions following three essential phases. These are: identifying human needs and real-life problems, generating ideas based on the discovered insights, and finally, prototyping and testing these ideas to understand their desirability, feasibility and viability in meeting those needs.

As a core strategy for changes, design thinking is an innovation method that can be applied to design and re-model products, services, processes and systems. Companies use design thinking to achieve human-centered solutions to generate value for customers, employees, stakeholders and users.

Good design thinking can translate into world-class customer service experiences, improvements in systems, such as healthcare and education, as well as greater productivity. In Singapore, such outcomes can be seen at the Manpower Ministry’s Employment Pass Centre designed by IDEO, and at Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris Lounge conceptualised by Ong & Ong. Similar projects have been successfully completed by NUS-ISS in healthcare, retail banking, public service, property and telecommunication industries. With its merits in generating breakthrough solutions, design thinking can be especially advantageous in business as it also encourages individuals in an organisation to work more creatively to develop differentiating solutions.

Three important trends are fast emerging in recent years. For one, organisations and employees are being increasingly challenged to incorporate creative and design thinking into their daily work to construct solutions that are of value to humans. On a broader level, greater attention is being given to sustainability design in addressing global issues as poverty, waste management and carbon emissions. At the national level, design thinking is being increasingly applied to complex systems such as public healthcare, education and energy supply, where results bear direct impact on creating a more liveable and sustainable world.

Design Thinking in Practice

On a recent Silicon Valley research trip, the valuable opportunity was given to gain first-hand insights on how leading practitioners of innovation and design thinking have put the key principles into action.

PARC, a Xerox company providing customised R&D, technology, expertise and IP, has developed an organisational system where employees are encouraged to take initiative in developing new technological solutions and prototypes. The company, which is well known for innovations such as the Ethernet and the computer mouse, also empowers its people through an innovation strategy and supportive work environment. This innovation strategy of a “reversed waterfall model” and work environment allows employees to iteratively co-create with key customers viable prototypes towards innovative technology solutions.

Also Read: Can accelerators save corporate innovation?

IDEO in Palo Alto, on the other hand, has a clear focus on empathy as designers develop human-centric solutions, such as enabling people with disabilities to vote, a programme with great potential to impact society. Like PARC, IDEO has a highly collaborative and creative environment that allows employees to produce innovative solutions successfully.

Circumventing Common Roadblocks

Providing employees with the autonomy and space for creativity can be a challenge for companies in Asia. However, it is possible to overcome this with a good organisational design, including the development of its culture, expertise, processes and structures. Leaders must be prepared to proactively develop and facilitate the environment for design thinking. Read more about my research on Organisational Culture in Knowledge Creation, Creativity and Innovation here.

A common misconception about innovation and design thinking involves segregating the creation of new ideas from their implementation. Innovation requires many new ideas and solutions within its implementation. One way for companies to avoid this misconception is to allow more room for ideas to evolve and iteratively improve them for a successful implementation of innovation.

Getting started

Companies looking to design thinking for enhanced innovation and productivity can emulate the strategies of practitioners like PARC and IDEO by considering these key factors:

  • Foster a culture of collaboration and empathy. Encourage employees to see things from an inter-disciplinary and user perspective
  • Empower design teams with the freedom to make decisions within the scope of their project. Facilitate the creative process.
  • Focus on human needs and experience. Put yourself in the shoes of users whom you are designing the solution for.
  • Create an environment where employees can innovate and experiment without the fear of failure.
  • Strengthen co-creation by engaging with both internal and external stakeholders

At the same time, NUS-ISS conducts professional courses such as WSQ Implementing Design Thinking and WSQ Strategic Design Thinking, where employees can acquire the basic skill sets and learn more about the practices, tool kits and methods of human-centered design. To find out how NUS-ISS can help kick-start design thinking in your organisation, contact us at [email protected].

This article was written in collaboration with Dr Jan Auernhammer, Associate, Service Innovation Practice at Institute of Systems Science, NUS. He is an expert in Innovation and Design Practices, Team Creativity, Design Thinking, Organisational Design and Innovation Eco-Systems. To find out how NUS-ISS can help kick-start design thinking in your organisation, contact us at [email protected].

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