What can design really teach business leaders about how to run their organizations? And where does it fit into the ever-evolving lexicon around innovation? Nicole Chen sketches out the top four values that business leaders should adopt from design thinking.

A lot is being said about the value of design in inspiring business innovation. A quick Amazon search of “design thinking” conjures up no less than 770 titles from names like Tim Brown and David Kelley from IDEO, Roger Martin from University of Rotman, or Hartmut Esslinger from frog design. But why the word, “design”?

There seems to be no limit to the number of business books and management journals that speak about open innovation, brand-driven innovation, or customer-led innovation. Do we really need another “x” innovation?

Now I personally don’t believe that there is a single catch-all innovation phrase for how to successfully and sustainably innovate one’s business, so I won’t propose that design thinking will solve all problems. But design thinking as applied to innovation – or what I’d like to term “design-inspired innovation” – certainly has much to offer a business innovator.

While design as a craft involves the learning of skills that require specialized technical training, I believe design as a set of values can be learned and embraced by anyone. In fact, it’s critical to business leaders today – disruptive innovation requires a high degree of empathic leadership, openness to ambiguity, and customer and employee engagement, all of which are values that design thinking advocates for.

Design in the context of innovation is simply a metaphor for what good, thoughtful business strategy could look like.

Ultimately, the design-inspired innovation philosophy proclaims that one doesn’t have to do design to live its values.  Design in the context of innovation is simply a metaphor for what good, thoughtful business strategy could look like. Leave design as a craft to the designers – they know what they’re doing. As a business leader, your job is to embody the principles and values of design thinking, advocate for design as a craft where it’s appropriate, and pave the way for others to do the same.

What are the values then of design that are critical for innovators to embrace and infuse into their organizations? Below is my short-list, or what I’d like to call the “Design-Inspired Innovation Primer”:

1. Making User-Centricity Real

At the core of good design is the user, the user, the user. The role of a good designer is to create something that someone else will consume; a product that will be used, a poster that will be read, an experience someone will enjoy.

To understand whom they are designing for, designers go out into the world and observe and talk to their target audiences. The esoteric concept of the “user” or “customer” then transforms into something with real meaning – customers become people with real names, faces, desires, hopes, struggles, and dreams. An abstracted market segment such as a “college-graduate, 25-34 year-old woman with a young family living in the suburbs who purchases dish soap once a month” becomes Alice who lives in San Carlos, CA, in a two-story home with a treehouse in the backyard, has three children (of which one you know has just won his soccer championship), and struggles to balance her personal needs with that of her family. With this level of empathy, designers can then design a truly meaningful solution for her and her family.

As business leaders and managers, we can easily get lost in the abstract of what we are trying to accomplish, whether it’s capturing market share, increasing margins, or reducing costs. In those moments, remind yourself to think like a user-centered designer and ask yourself – whom am I building this for and why?

2. Make Innovation Tangible and Digestible

Designers are quick to put pen to paper and synthesize abstract ideas down to a tangible and digestible level. Their ability to quickly convert thought into simple visuals not only helps them work through their own ideas, but also helps them effectively share them with others. Good designers are talented at compelling storytelling and do so by creating arches of narrative that engage an audience to care about the problem they are solving.

The presenter cut her long ponytail off in front of the audience as a show of support for women who lost their hair to cancer.

This design value of making things tangible and digestible is key in the world of business. How many dry powerpoint presentations have you sat through that seem to follow the same old format and leaving you questioning what the point of it all was for in the first place? If you want to push an innovative new idea through a pipeline or approval process, make your audience care by telling a compelling story that appeals to your audience as emotional humans. I observed that magical moment of empathy when viewing a presentation by an MBA in Design Strategy student several months ago. In making a case for investment into a charity that collects hair donations to create wigs for patients recovering from cancer treatment, she not only told us the story of her own mother’s recovery, but also cut her long ponytail off in front of the audience as a show of support. An act like that is more memorable than numbers, every time.  Making your audience care is critical, especially with new, never-done-before initiatives, and thinking like a designer and crafting authentic stories is an effective way to achieve that objective.

3. Building to Learn

Another design value that is often associated with design craft is the approach of building to learn. Tangible representations and pieces of a new idea are put into the hands of the user as early as possible (referred to as “quick and dirty prototypes” by professors at Stanford’s and then iterated upon constantly to hone in on a better and better solution. The focus thus shifts from creating prototypes that are as accurate as possible to the big idea to creating many small prototypes that test certain elements quickly and iteratively. In the context of design-inspired innovation, testing isn’t about validating a concept; it’s about learning what works and what doesn’t and co-creating with your user.

In the context of more complex business problems, this can be a scary prospect. The common doubt is that users won’t get the full picture of the solution you think is right if it’s broken up into pieces and tested in incomplete form. But what should be scarier is the idea of putting immense amounts of resources into creating a full test for a complex solution that is flawed to begin with. Embodying the value of building to learn means you find the flaws in concept early, guaranteeing you a better outcome through more efficient means. The idea is that the prototype doesn’t have to be complete to be testing. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

Kaiser Permanente, one of the leading health care organizations in California, has invested in this value by creating a living laboratory in Oakland where they test new initiatives in a hands-on, mocked-up clinical environment. They know that prototyping services or experiences require more inventiveness than a tangible and functional product, and so they have created an experimental space to do exactly that.

4. Building Collaboration, Not Ownership

While we often imagine designers as creative geniuses working in isolation, the reality is the stark opposite – design is an extremely collaborative activity. Ideas are readily shared, critiqued as a group, and built one upon the other in constant activity. No one wholly owns a design concept – rather they are shared, honed in, and created together. Design studios are open, collaborative spaces where conversations are overheard, profiles are diverse, and fun and creativity is encouraged. And thus another crucial design value that drives design-inspired innovation is the importance of collaboration over ownership.

Design studios are open, collaborative spaces where conversations are overheard, profiles are diverse, and fun and creativity is encouraged.

Disruptive innovation absolutely has to be a collaborative process. The truly breakthrough ideas require systemic change, where an organization has to change the core of what it is and how it operates to accommodate a completely new way of doing. Even with incremental innovations, if it truly represents a shift in the status quo, no matter how big, you need others to support you and to co-create your solution with. This means opening up your creative process, inviting others to take a part, giving up ownership, and realizing you are curating the activity of a team of people, rather than directing them.

In thinking about these design-inspired values that can also be applied to business innovation, I recognize that some of these aren’t new to this readership. Being customer-centric, prototyping rapidly, or learning to collaborate with a multi-disciplinary group of people are increasingly considered basic tenets of strategic innovation, and hopefully one day, of good business practice as a whole. What the essence of design thinking provides us, however, is a simple metaphor and defined set of values to help guide the business leader in pushing the boundaries of his or her organization. So consider design as more than the powerful visual and creative skill that it is. It’s also something to live by.

By Nicole Chen

About the author:

A product designer evolved into a business strategist, Nicole Chen specialises in the application of design principles and practice to the solving of complex business challenges. As an avid advocate of the fusion between human-centered design process and business thinking, Nicole has extensive experience in developing new product and service concepts and bringing them to market, and in designing business strategies that create true market and social value.

Nicole was the founding employee of the San Francisco office of Idea Couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm headquartered in Toronto. She contributes to Idea Couture’s strategic innovation projects as a Sr. Innovation Strategist. Her previous experience includes innovation consulting for global clients representing industries such as CPG, consumer electronics, financial services, and telecommunications; and the product development and marketing of digital media solutions for Fortune 500 brands.

Nicole holds an MBA degree from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and a Bachelor of Science in Product Design from Stanford University.

Nicole tweets about design and innovation at @nychen.