Design Thinking – an approach to problem solving
By Dragos Gavrilescu
Solving problems effectively:
In today’s business world, solving problems effectively is probably the most admired and highly rewarded ability. Top executives and line managers are experts at solving problems. How do they do it? MBA degrees and years of experience teach top performers how to use information from the past or from statistical sources to infer a handful of options, analyze them on a set of business criteria, and quickly choose the one that has the optimal ratio between gains, risks, and costs. In the majority of time, this is a pathway to success in business.
This pattern of thinking is known as analytical thinking. It is the most taught mental pattern between childhood and adulthood and thus it becomes the dominant way we make decisions as adults. It allows us to deal with most of life problems, not only business ones.
“What keeps you up at night?”
Enter “wicked” problems. A classical question to ask CEOs: “what keeps you up at night?”. They’d point to at least one problem they’ve struggled with for some time. One they simply can’t deal with in the same they’ve solved thousands of other business problems over the years. Their mastered analytical thinking is of little use there.
These are wicked problems: problems that cannot be solved by inferring based on the past or quantitative stats. They simply won’t be solved through analytical thinking. Einstein provokes one answer: “we cannot solve the problems we face today by using the same thinking we used when we created them”. Another angle too look from is that solving problems is a work of predicting the future, which we all know cannot be accurately predicted.
In most cases, business problems solved through an analytical approach give us the confidence that future can be predicted quite accurately through the use of analysis. However, in the case of wicked problems this simply doesn’t happen. In this situation, we, analytical thinkers, are faced with the cruel reality that our future prediction skills are ineffective. The most frequent example is innovation.
True innovation is a disruptive, genius-like result. But innovation and solving wicked problems is not only for genius to do. That’s where design thinking comes to the rescue.
The design thinking approach:
Design thinking starts with suspending our judgement and deeply ingrained analytical skills. A design thinker would not analyze facts to generate a list of solutions to select from, instead a design thinker would start by exploring the problems that people have in the challenge at stake. The essence of design thinking is in a curious and empathic exploration of problems people have. Equipped with such deep understanding, new “magical” perspectives emerge, and reframing the issue may be needed. Let’s take an imaginary example: Diana, a young entrepreneur, wants to revolutionize sports shoes for casual wear, which today is a multi-billion dollar business.
If she took the design thinking approach, she and her team would suspend thinking about any solutions to the challenge she started with. They also agree to spend one week with hardcore users of sports shoes in casual wear and one week with people who never use sports shoes in casual wear.
When Diana and her team get back together after two weeks, they realize that people suffer acute feet fatigue and no shoes options give them a solution to it. So they decide that the challenge is not to revolutionize sports shoes for casual wear, but the need to disrupt the way people refresh the energy in their feet. This a completely different challenge that would have never been accessible through analytical thinking in the first place.
Improving sports shoes incrementally to make them more comfortable and fashionable would have been a very straightforward analytical solution for Diana and her team, but it would be an incremental non-disruptive one, and probably easy to counteract by the behemoths of the industry. However, innovating feet refreshment would be a completely new approach. This reframing of the problem would open unimaginable avenues for Diana both in technology, industries, business models, solutions and ultimately hundreds of ideas to start from.
But design thinking would not stop there. With hundreds of ideas processed, clustered, reshaped, and filtered by customers’ desirability, business viability, and technological feasibility, a handful of disruptive new products or services would emerge to then be put to the test.
The design process is fundamentally based on the creation and testing of prototypes. A prototype is a simple first ACTUAL version of an idea. It is a tangible output which CUSTOMERS WOULD INTERACT WITH. Let’s imagine, that one of Diana’s team ideas is a smart flooring that allows people to walk bare footed in the office. This would then be tested with real customers to get feedback. Based on their feedback only a small portion of the prototype would probably be kept, for example people may find the idea of walking bare footed a great one, but only in the grass and not in public spaces such as offices, due to hygiene concerns. Then maybe the idea would be shifted to create grass-like smart flooring solutions that make you feel walking the grass in Central Park. As you can see this idea is very far from the initial challenges and the solutions that may have been accessible to Diana through an analytical avenue. And this process can be iterated several times to arrive at the optimal solution for customers and the business.
Design thinking and analytical thinking:
A final word: design thinking and analytical thinking are not enemies. They are just two approaches that when used complementarily would create the most value for customers. Just as exploring and developing new creative solutions through design thinking gets the disruption in the market, so would analytical methods help extract the maximum business value and deliver the most delightful experience for customers with these disruptions. The greatest companies today use a combination of these two mindsets. Some of them: Google, Procter& Gamble, Apple, Pepsico, Tesla, SAP, IBM. Governments and charities are also making efforts to integrate it in their approaches to address social issues.
Disclaimer: the ideas in this material have been inspired by numerous articles, books, webinars, blogs and shared presentations on design thinking. I would be impossible to list them all.
The most influential ones are listed below:
- Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger L. Martin
- Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works by Jeanne Liedtka , Andrew King
- Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown
- Design Thinking: Method, not Magic. Webinar from Stanford d.school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSuK2C89yjA
- HBR article: https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-for-action
- school virtual crash course: http://dschool.stanford.edu/dgift/
About Dragos Gavrilescu:
Dragos is a seasoned design thinking consultant with 10+ years of experience as a top executive and management consultant. He is passionate about making design thinking the fuel of next generation of entrepreneurs, business leaders and social innovators. He is the founder of the Romanian communities of Design Thinking with active events online and offline.
Dragos can be contacted at: