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Design Thinking: Key to solving complex organizational problems

The 21st century survival code for companies is quite simple: innovate or die. Companies can no longer keep good business going by merely being efficient and consistent. The changing nature of change is forcing organizations to make innovation a part of their corporate DNA. Rajan Patel, who co-invented the Embrace incubator that helped save 250,000 babies across 25 developing countries, explains why the top skill for competitive advantage is design thinking.

Originating from Silicon Valley, Design Thinking is now a mainstream business discipline at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. One of Design Thinking’s earliest champions was IDEO whose current CEO Tim Brown helped Steve Jobs at Apple invent the first usable computer mouse. According to Patel, who studied design at the Stanford Design School, Design Thinking is “a process for creativity and innovation.” He breaks down the process into three broad stages: listen, think, build, and constantly iterating through those. More and more companies are recognizing the need to build their capacity for continual innovation, so they don’t stop with one good product but are constantly evolving in step with the world.

Design Thinking begins with the much-overlooked soft skill of empathy. “Design Thinking is rooted in empathy — to truly build a product or service that delivers value, designers need to listen to their customers and or users, not assume that they, as the designers, are the ones with all of the answers,” said Patel, who has won numerous awards, including The Economist Social Innovation Award, Top Innovation from the World Health Organization (WHO), and the McKinsey Social Innovation Award. According to him, Design Thinking is really about “deeply listening” and walking in someone else’s shoes. It means understanding feelings, unmet needs, culture, and perceptions. Patel stressed: “Oftentimes, teams create great solutions but for the wrong problem. If you lead with empathy, you can ensure you will actually build something people want and need.”

Before Patel’s co-invention the Embrace baby incubator hit the market, an estimated 4 million premature or low-birth-weight babies died within their first month, mostly because of hypothermia. It was through the Design Thinking process that Patel, together with his team, was able to create an incubator that costs less than 1% of a traditional incubator. Not needing electricity to run, Embrace was designed with users in developing countries in mind. It was the product of hours of interviewing parents, doctors, and medical technicians as part of a feedback loop that informed their design. “Design thinking can help them deeply understand their users and deliver solutions they actually want and need, while also building a culture of constant prototyping and iteration, so they don’t get too stuck in their own ways and unable to change and keep up,” explained Patel, who is also from Harvard University.

Today, more organizations are unlocking the potential of applying Design Thinking as a process and as a set of principles not just to products and services but to experiences, interactions, systems, and policies. Pundits are saying both traditional and relatively new industries like insurance, healthcare, agriculture, and customer service will be dealing with more and more disruption. And organizations are embedding Design Thinking elements to create an organizational culture of constant innovation and creative solutions to sticky problems. According to Patel, industries going through change and disruption often have a hard time keeping up and surviving. “[This is] because they lose touch with their users or because competitors enter with newer, better solutions,” he said.  

A number of Fortune 100 companies are applying Design Thinking to a whole range of challenges. Design Thinking is not just meant to create products and services that actually work. It can be applied effectively to address internal challenges, to engage customers on a deeper level, and to optimize management development and individual skill building. Over-all, Design Thinking is precisely that — a way of creative

By Nirva’ana Ella Delacruz