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Design Thinking Is Not a Silver Bullet. Sorry.

Learning a method won't make you more innovative. It might help, though.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 9, 2017

Innovation Requires More Than Just a Process

“Learning how to drive a car won’t turn you into a Formula 1 driver.”

Everyone’s seems to be (talking about) practicing Human-centered design these days. It’s dangerously about to turn into the new silver bullet or fad. The reason that has driven its wide adoption — being straightforward and simple- can also become its kryptonite.

Many organizations fall in the trap of oversimplifying their path to becoming more innovative. And I hate to break the illusion of your new shiny object but, the sooner you separate reality from corporate myopia, the better.

“Learning how to drive a car won’t turn you into a Formula 1 driver.”

Don’t become one of those companies that check the box of innovation simply because they adopted a new process (call it Design Thinking, Agile, Human-centered design, you name it).

Don’t get me wrong I’m an advocate of Design Thinking (DT). I’ve trained and coached hundreds of people. But I don’t like to be one of those who sell it as a silver bullet. A tool is just that. And innovation is a fast and furious sport. Just like acing the F1 category, it takes time (and much more).

5 Watch Outs When Implementing Design Thinking

Innovation is much more than coming up with an innovative solution. It’s about creating real impact from going against established norms, to drive adoption or scaling up. And, moving the organization behind a new solution is where most innovation teams struggle as shown on the chart.

1. Mastering innovation takes time: Becoming a Formula 1 driver takes at least ten years. It’s a progressional journey that starts with karting and then moving all the way up across different categories such as Formula Ford, GP3, and GP2. In the most competitive racing sport, you don’t become a F1 driver overnight.

The same applies to learning Design Thinking, the process is just the start. It takes time and practice to master it. The journey towards mastery requires several iterations, to gain experience solving different kind of problems, to learn how to overcome resistance and to distill insights into meaningful solutions. Becoming an innovation driver doesn’t happen overnight.

2. Empathy, is the hardest part to get: Driving at high speed requires to being able to adapt easily. Things change all the time in F1: from crashes and punctures to the weather and failed engines — pilots have to be ready to handle the unexpected. And, most importantly, they need to understand and react to other drivers maneuvers. It’s a mind game. One where intuition and understanding of others is critical.

Empathy is the foundation of humancentered design. It keeps all the pieces together. Empathy is the act of understanding the people you are designing for. It’s about putting yourself in their shoes. To open your mind, to be more adaptive, so you can see the world through their perspective, not yours. Connecting with other humans, to get deeper stories and insights, is not an easy task. Most people have a hard time, regardless of how much they practice, to walk in other’s people shoes.

3. Biased perspectives make companies blind: A couple of years ago, Fernando Alonso, the Spanish F1 champion, sent a direct critical message to Honda McLaren team: “This is embarrassing” he said after a bad performance. While this kind of emotional and short-term focus is typical of the Spanish culture, it didn’t resonate well with the Japanese leadership who felt “embarrassed”. The Asian culture has a hard time with the concept of “face”.

“When all think the same, then no one is thinking” — Walter Lippmann

A strong organizational culture is good but, it can create biased perspectives. Design Thinking can drive to group thinking when all the members are from the same organization. This same distortion can make an organization blind to what matters to the “real” people. Diversity of thinking is critical if you want to win the innovation championship.

4. Anyone can be creative but not everyone is good at being creative: F1 engineers and designers are relentless at coming up with new innovations. Their work is a tribute to the sport’s inherent creativity and ingenuity. To win the most championships of all time, is not an act of sudden luck for Ferrari. The Italian “scuderia” has a tradition to hire and nurture the best minds in the field.

Are you hiring the best creative minds? Do you bring together talent with different skills and background? The more diverse your team members, the richer the ideas. Curation is also a critical factor. Not everyone has the ability to identify the potential of an idea at an infant stage. Least to say, to successfully sell those ideas at a prototype level to the leaders of an organization. That takes special craft, experience and talent.

5. Culture eats Innovation for lunch: Take a look at a F1 pit stop and you’ll see a crew of around 20 people. That’s just the “front end”, the driver is just one member of a huge team that involves hundreds of people. Changing a tire can’t take more than four seconds. Having designed the most powerful engine will mean nothing if the pit crew doesn’t perform at this critical moment.

Unfortunately, organizations still struggle with getting the internal support from both employees and management. Design Thinking focuses too much on finding the solution but provides limited tools to dealing with the internal culture or scaling an idea. To win the innovation race, internal culture alignment and support are as critical as changing a tire in less than four seconds.

Innovation requires people to stretch their mindset. Not just your innovation team. But, also everyone who will be involved in implementing, scaling and, most importantly, approving new solutions.

Learn a New Mindset, Not Just a Process

“To be creative it is better to be social than smart”, Harvard Study

Even though most DT crash courses and bootcamps emphasize the importance of the mindset, very few solve for that effectively. I’ve dealt with many teams that believed they mastered the method because they were familiar with the tools. But they felt clueless when confronted with real world resistance. Having the right mindset is critical to become a winning innovation driver.

To drive adoption and support, requires to build a culture of change and experimentation. And that starts by promoting psychological safety and increasing mistake tolerance.

Empathy over egos: To develop a human-centric approach we need to retrain our brains. Getting back to understanding people (versus seeing them as consumers or users of our product). Connecting with their emotions and stories is easier said than done. To walk in other people’s shoes, the organization needs to let go of hierarchies, titles and the desire to control. All those ego-driven behaviors reduce your ability to truly listen to others.

Experimentation over perfection: Most organizational cultures operate under a model of control. Deeply rooted in the obsession put in planning, testing and over-analyzing everything. By trying to minimize risks they keep the team in the pit stop for too long. Everything happens at top speed during a F1 race, especially mistakes. There’s no time to hide them. Total transparency and strict deadlines don’t provide room for blame. F1 culture moves at the same speed as the cars. So should yours. Act fast and learn fast too.

Collaboration over expertise: Formula 1 ingenuity is the consequence of hundreds of minds –a heterogeneous team- working together. The more diverse the background of your team, the more you will amplify your organization’s perspective. Sometimes those that are the farther away from the problems –like outsiders or non-experts- come up with more interesting solutions. To establish a culture of creativity, both leaders and experts, need to allow ideas to can come from everyone. Or like this recent Harvard Study says: to be creative it is better to be social than smart.

Doing over planning: Formula 1 provides a challenging working environment. Deadlines are immovable: money is abundant, time is scarce. You cannot delay a race because you are still prototyping the new version of the engine. How much time does your company waste by postponing action by favoring planning? Testing ideas at a raw-form removes the life-or-death situation.

Which takes me to another point. The risk of racing solo versus with a broader team.

If you liked this piece, CLICK to read part 2

Why Culture Design?



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Let Innovation Thrive

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