Want to make human-centred business decisions? Use design thinking

Originally published in the Globe & Mail April 13, 2022


In the rapidly evolving world of work, there’s constant pressure on organizations, leaders and individuals to get more done with less.

Teams that are under time constraints or facing looming deadlines sometimes adopt solutions with inherent biases or that lack creativity. While innovation is often a stated objective, these pressures can cut into the spaces that are necessary to spark creativity and generate new ideas.

How can workplaces know where innovation is called for without taking the time to understand customer needs? How can leadership do better for their staff if they don’t truly listen?

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation and problem solving. “It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes,” the global design firm IDEO says.

You don’t have to understand the full technical framework and process to apply the key principles of design thinking in day-to-day business decisions and people leadership. Adopting a human-centred approach at work can help generate more – and often better – solutions for customers and staff.

Inspired by the process used by IDEO, here’s the process to implement design thinking:

  • Identify the challenge: Teams often stumble right off the blocks because they don’t agree on the problem they are trying to solve. To avoid wasting time and resources, make sure all team members understand the challenge from the outset.
  • Gather inspiration: Avoid creator’s bias by gathering a wide range of ideas and insights to understand the end-user. Use surveys and other tools to research your audience. To ensure you’re considering enough viewpoints and mitigating blind spots, think about the extremes in your population.
  • Generate ideas: Team members should be encouraged to build on each other’s ideas. If your team is remote (or a hybrid of virtual and in the office) or in different time zones, try using an online collaboration tool such as Miro or Mural to be inclusive and avoid groupthink. After ideas are generated, meet as a team to create – and agree on – a short list of solutions to explore in more depth. A work culture where all members are comfortable speaking up promotes inclusion and team well-being, in addition to better business solutions.
  • Make ideas tangible: With ideas in hand, encourage team members to have fun using their imagination to design solutions with the user’s needs front and centre.
  • Test to learn: This might feel unnatural in organizations where teams are accustomed to waiting for perfection before releasing a solution. However, testing and learning or “failing forward” by constantly incorporating user feedback, builds the agility required for innovation.
  • Share the story: Even the best solutions fall flat without a thoughtful communication plan. Get buy-in and adoption for your ideas by sharing the why behind decisions, including user feedback. Overcommunication is a must: Do not assume you’ve reached the hearts and minds of users with one corporate memo.

A Design Thinking approach can also apply in day-to-day people leadership. For example, understanding the needs of individual team members ensures you can support them with personalized and relevant resources.

Gathering inspiration from a variety of sources enables us to tailor our leadership style to the unique individual needs of our team members. Asking for and acting on feedback – after meetings, throughout difficult projects – is a great way to develop vulnerability, a key leadership capability.

This type of human-centred approach to business and people leadership fosters a more inclusive, inspiring culture, essential to both innovation and organizational well-being.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future foHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.