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5 steps to innovate your organization

A facilitator motions to a whiteboard while two people sit and listen to the presentation.

Design thinking is a tool many organizations are adopting to promote a culture of innovation. Follow this for five steps to apply design thinking to your organization.

Imagine taking the process inventors and innovators use to create physical prototypes and products and applying it to ideas and processes. Visualizing and communicating these intangible things is a challenge for thinkers and process-driven people. Design thinking seeks to disrupt the status quo of problem-solving by synthesizing the traditional, structured analytical approach with a creative flair.

Embrace design thinking

Design thinking can be an important tool in the toolbox for creating an innovative organization. Organizations that embrace design thinking do it best by adopting a design-centric culture; one which celebrates innovation in daily thinking. Here are a few reasons to explore design thinking:

  • People-centric: Change model focused on the human-capital components of a process. Not many change models are so centralized around empathy. Design thinking emphasizes a change model focused on people that helps ensure that the strategic goals of an organization are fully aligned with both the people working to achieve the strategy and the consumers of an organization’s strategy.
  • Iterative: Design Thinking gives organizations a mechanism to think about change and strategy, and a process to continually iterate. Maya Watson, senior designer at IBM Watson, explains that the constant reflection of design thinking helps drive its innovative culture.
  • Failure-tolerant: The Harvard Business Review notes that design thinking does not encourage failure, but recognizes that, as iteration is expected, things do not usually go absolutely right the first time. Design thinking promotes learning from failures and embracing risk to iterate to better solutions to problems.
  • Future-focused: This process takes users beyond the day-to-day problems and identifies a long-term goal and realistic steps for how to solve it. Thinking big-picture about a problem is important. But developing discrete steps to address it over time is too, and taking a critical look at the desired future state keeps the focus on creating something better.
  • Creative: Innovation and creativity go hand and hand. For an organization to be innovative, creativity must be embraced. Design thinking helps tap into the creative mindset used by great innovators and applies it to solving everyday organizational challenges. It uses prototypes, visualizations that are either physical or drawn, to explore new solutions. Design thinking is structured innovation – helping get to productive results out of creative processes.

Design thinking is a collaborative, creative process for solving problems. A group of stakeholders representing different points of view gather with a design thinking leader or moderator. The process is structured innovation – creative, but in a way that keeps the time aligned with the central goal. The process is now used by innovative organizations such as Lego, GE, IKEA, and Apple.

Design thinking has been on our minds at the Kauffman Foundation lately. Recently, our Entrepreneurship team convened a summit of stakeholders – program managers, grantees, researchers, previous applicants – to turn the concept of a traditional Call for Proposals on its head. And, at the recent Innovation Growth Lab (IGL) conference, there was a lot of buzz around using design thinking to create innovative organizations.

How to get there: 5 steps to innovate

The Institute of Design out of Stanford University is one of the foremost pioneers for design thinking. The identifies 5 steps in the design thinking process:

  1. Empathize: Design thinking begins with a very human-centered approach, thinking about the primary experience and the challenge at hand. Gathering a number of stakeholders to understand and describe the challenges from their perspective is central to the process.
  2. Define: After the stakeholder groups are understood, the problem is identified. For many problems, this is one of the more difficult steps. Given the work from the previous step, the design approach for the problem needs to be centered around the experience of the different user groups.
  3. Ideate: The ideation step explores problem-solving. Through ideation the groups discuss what an ideal future state would look like and the possible steps and solutions for how to get there.
  4. Prototype: Prototyping requires that the group moves its idea into a physical, tangible form. The prototype, visualizations that are either physical or drawn, will rely on the feedback from stakeholders, be technologically feasible, and viable for the organization. Design thinking sessions require a room and resources for everyone to draw and iterate on designs.
  5. Test: Combining all of the knowledge from the prior four steps, this process refines and iterates on feedback to create a model that can be tested and implemented. In this phase, the prototype is put into action. Failure should be an expected part of this process, because as with any iterative process, things are not typically perfect from the first go. 

Other groups have varying models for the design thinking process, although all share crucial commonalities. The of Paris follows nearly the same model but categorizes them into inspiration, ideation, and implementation. IDEO Design Group and Stanford’s share that the results of design thinking must be desirable and human-focused, technologically feasible, and viable for the business.

Organizations need to be thinking about whether their culture inspires or isolates creativity. While design thinking models alone will not automate cultural innovation, they are an important tool in the process. Organizations need to be innovative to survive in the changing economy. Developing a design-centric culture can help boost innovation by focusing on people, reflecting on the future state and how to get there, celebrating creativity, and learning from failure.