Design thinking: solving problems and building an innovation culture

Posted on May 29, 2014. Filed under: Human Capital, Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Tara Neven, co-founder and director of neuresource group and an expert on human capital and organisational change, looks at how design thinking fits in with what we are learning about the brain and how it offers an integrated approach to problem solving in the workplace.




A new way of tackling problems

Traditionally, when a problem is identified in an organisation, a team is assembled, a brainstorming session organised, and solutions decided on. The team members then return to their various departments charged with the task of imposing the ‘solutions’ on the rest of the employees. No matter how enthusiastic the decision-makers or how sound the decisions, there is usually a great deal of resistance to new ways of doing things.

What we are learning from neuroscience explains why this happens: while the brain likes novelty, it is also designed to conserve resources. And new ways of doing things can be cognitively taxing.  In general, people don’t like change and experience it with varying degrees of threat. For those who feel high degrees of threat when faced with change, enacting it with any consistency is nearly impossible. They will always resort to old behaviours because that’s what feels most comfortable.

There is another way to approach problem solving, however. The following principles set the stage:

    • People have the right to participation.
    • Decision-makers have a social responsibility to others.
    • Everyone is an expert at something.
    • Participation creates ownership of the product or outcome.

Sounds straightforward, right?

These basic ideas are behind the framework known as participatory design – design thinking, in other words –   and it’s actually a radical approach when applied to problem solving in the business context.

In participatory design, the decision-makers, users, and even the wider public are all recognised as stakeholders and are brought into the process of designing solutions to problems. These leads to divergent thinking, unexpected solutions, and new ideas that have not previously existed.

Design thinking originated in the sciences and was initially used in design and visual engineering. It was promoted as a tool for business by IDEO CEO Tim Brown in early 2000. Stanford University and other learning institutions have refined the design thinking process so that it can now be used in any solution-creating scenario in the workplace.

There is an added benefit to incorporating this new way of approaching problem solving. You set the groundwork for establishing a culture of innovation, which will help to make your organisation more receptive to changes and more agile when faced with challenges.

Greater organisational resilience and change agility

Over the past decade, I’ve worked with corporate organisations and reviewed many case studies of successful companies in some of the world’s most turbulent geographical and service markets. What has really impressed me is that the key underlying need in organisations today is change agility and the flexibility to cope with the unexpected. Change in organisations can be dealt with in may ways and in essence it will always involve a multi-tiered solution, however, cultivating an innovation culture is one of the paramount factors for building change agility and resilience in organisations.

Design thinking offers a great framework for supporting and building innovation. This framework takes the view that radical collaboration and a solutions-based thinking process can be used in organisations not only to tackle entrenched problems, but to create a culture that is better prepared for the fluctuations of an increasingly complex global marketplace. It’s a formal method for practically and creatively dealing with major issues and unanticipated challenges.

5_tips_580pxThe most common way to employ design thinking is to use a 5-step process:

    • empathise
    • define
    • ideate
    • prototype
    • test



Within each of these steps, problems can be framed, the right questions asked, more ideas generated, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated as needed. The time frame for each step and between each step can and will vary depending on the problem, particularly if what you’re dealing with is a ‘wicked’ question.

The key  in any problem solving or discussion process in your business is to start off with a strong curiosity about something. This will allow you to experience the kind of deep empathy you need to feel not only for the right outcome but also for the people the solution will affect. Once you have that, you are on your way to defining the parameters and outlining the features of the issue, and you can then begin to ‘ideate’ a solution.

Design thinking (unlike other problem solving approaches) goes deeper than a purely rational approach.

As Brown states: “It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols… Nobody wants to run an organisation on feeling, intuition and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking provides an integrated third way.”


Watch Tim Brown’s TEDTalk on ‘design thinking’:



Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 9.23.30 AMTara Neven is the co-founder/director of neuresource group.  As an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development, and collective leadership specialist, Tara has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development. The last 10 years of this experience has been in remote and regional areas of Australia. Tara’s primary industry experience has been in the mining and resource sector, construction, local government and medium-to-large organisations.


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