The most successful companies — the ones that disrupt existing industries or create new ones — often have something in common: an obsessive desire to deeply understand how to uniquely meet their customers’ needs. It’s an approach to innovation called “design thinking,” and it’s a discipline that can make the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
The idea isn’t all that revolutionary, and design companies have used it for decades. After all, empathizing with users of a product or service to uncover unmet needs is at the heart of design. A classic example comes from GE, which transformed its intimidating MRI machines into environments like submarines and rainforests to put children at ease. Deep immersion sets up the opportunity to iterate and test potential solutions before fully implementing. The approach is gaining traction as a way to better solve problems and create solutions, and you can apply it to practically any industry.
In our early years, most of us adopt traditional approaches to work — using our skills and talents to work toward a defined outcome. But working in a collaborative way, as a team, is more efficient and fruitful, says Ulrich Weinberg, a professor and director of the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso-Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam in Germany. And his students are mastering the ins and outs of that approach and bringing it to the workplace.
Adopting design thinking starts with something tangible, and that looks a lot like the workplace for a start-up. “You need a new space — an environment that’s supporting a group and not just the individual,” Weinberg says. “A single desk doesn’t make sense.” Moveable tables and whiteboards that support a group (4–6 people tends to be the sweet spot; he says) are a good start. From there, Weinberg says, the magic happens. “It’s a space where you’re protected to fail.”
Failing is an important part of the iterative process that’s key to design thinking. “Working iteratively makes much more sense than just moving through something linearly, where you’ve defined the outcome,” Weinberg says. That openness often leads to the best solutions, something he’s seen in student presentations to corporate and product partners. “When [partners] look at the presentations from students, they often say they can’t believe it. They say, ‘We would never have come up with that.’”
The approach is even influencing the way companies incentivize workers. “I think 30 years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember those times when we had this individual incentive and how stupid it was to isolate people and make them individual competitors instead of team workers and collaborators?’” Weinberg says. Educational programs like the one he leads are gradually becoming more common — and their graduates are driving companies to adopt design thinking. “If companies don’t change, they’ll end up with a culture that’s not attractive enough for the highly skilled people of the future,” Weinberg says.