Close

Sign up to get the latest news and stories on the future of work.

Subscribe Search

Search form

The rise of increasingly complex business systems and technology mean that today's companies need a creative workforce more than ever. To foster that creativity, many companies have turned to designers—not only to create new products and services, but also to improve their business processes and foster more innovative, happy and successful employees.

It's an approach called "design thinking," and it's paying off. Each year, the Design Management Institute conducts an assessment of top design-led companies like Apple, IBM and Coca-Cola. For 2015, DMI's assessment found that these companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 211 percent.

To learn more about design thinking, we spoke with Linda Naiman, founder of the Vancouver-based consulting firm Creativity at Work. Naiman has helped introduce design thinking to organizations like the US Navy, GE and Intel. Here, she explains the concept of design thinking, why leaders should bring it into the workplace and how it applies to their talent management strategy.

What is design thinking?

Design Thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems, and find desirable solutions. A design mindset is not problem-focused—it's solution focused and action oriented. It's a co-creative, iterative process that focuses on human values and needs through a process of questioning assumptions, collaborating, focused brainstorming and building prototypes to test ideas and get feedback.

Design thinkers first try to understand the unmet needs of customers or end users before coming up with ideas to address them. The goal is to create solutions that are not only technically feasible and financially viable, but also desirable to those end users.

Linda Naiman's Framework for Design Thinking

Why are companies adopting this methodology?

If you look at some of the top companies that use design—Apple, Coca Cola, IBM—they've outperformed in the marketplace by reinventing their core business processes to focus on their customers' needs. Design-led companies put people first, not technology.

"Design led companies put people first, not technology."

Design thinking minimizes the uncertainty and risk of innovation by engaging customers or users through a series of prototypes to learn, test and refine concepts; it relies on customer insights gained from real-world experiments, not just historical data or market research. This way of thinking helps these companies improve their success rates and innovation.

How do you work with companies to introduce or implement design thinking?

Typically, I work with executives and their teams. They come to me looking for new ways to innovate. Maybe they're in a slump and they want to kick start creativity in group. Through workshops, I help them learn methodologies to reframe, to ask better questions and collaborate better. Rather than devising specific strategies for them, I teach them the thinking skills they need to devise those strategies for themselves.

How can leaders apply design thinking to talent management?

The best leaders have empathy for their teams. If you're in charge of a team, you need to think about what their needs are. What barriers do you need to remove to enable them to do their best work? How can you ensure diversity of thought in your team? How can you empower your team to take action? How do you create the conditions for your people to do great work?

"Innovation is not just about products and services. It can be intangible as well, like business processes or changes to a company's culture."

Innovation is not just [about] products and services. It can be intangible as well, like business processes or changes to a company's culture. So, a manager and team educated in design thinking may collaborate to look at their processes and find better ways to get the job done. Once they generate ideas for solutions, they build a prototype and test it to see if their idea works.

What impact can design thinking have on a company's culture?

If a company adopts this methodology, the culture will change on its own thanks to the values inherent to design thinking. These values include empathy, collaboration, experimentation, exploring ambiguity, a commitment to building on each other's ideas and the idea of prototyping (which is a core element of design thinking). You must quickly mock up new ideas and test them in order to get feedback. And that means creating a safe space where people don't have to worry about being a failure—failure is part of the process. Designing the way you work will help people do things more efficiently and give them more time to do more fulfilling work.

Photo: Twenty20