How Enterprises can Design Think their Way Out of Disruption
The conventional “convergent thinking” approach prescribes that organizations find a solution from a finite set of proven choices delivering yet another me-too solution in the name of innovation. Design Thinking on the other hand, says “find the problem and the rest will follow”
Everywhere you look, the old order is crumbling. Today customers, and not corporations, are the custodians of market power. Monolithic “pipeline” businesses are making way for platform-based ecosystems. And technology is evolving even as it becomes obsolete.
Nowhere is this upheaval more evident than in the disruption of heavyweight incumbent organizations at the hands of young digital businesses whose main assets are their ideas and innovations. The S&P 500 tells this tale eloquently – in 1965, the average shelf life on the index was 33 years, which shrank to 20 years by 1990, and will further reduce to 14 years by 2026. Currently, Facebook and Google’s parent Alphabet are in the top 10 by market cap. Eastman Kodak was replaced by Netflix on the index in 2010, the camera film pioneer filed for bankruptcy two years later.
In contrast to the meteoric rise of new age firms, the fate of companies like Eastman Kodak and Blockbuster is a cautionary tale of the consequences of not adapting to a world that has changed beyond recognition. Incumbents still trapped in legacy need to find a way out quickly, a new way it must be said, if they are to escape being disrupted in the digital age.
Find the Problem and the Rest Will Follow
One framework is to use Design Thinking for innovation. Ask any company what its purpose is and the answer will distil down to solving the needs of the consumer. The conventional “convergent thinking” approach prescribes that the organization find a solution from a finite set of choices that have worked in the past. By definition, this approach delivers yet another me-too solution in the name of innovation. Design Thinking on the other hand, says “find the problem and the rest will follow”. Where convergent thinking sees innovation through an organizational lens – can we build the solution? Will it make money? – Design Thinking values customer interest above all else. At the outset it is concerned with one question, and one question alone: “Is this innovation really what my customers desire?”
If the answer to that is yes – so, because the innovation solves a longstanding, fundamental problem of the customer – only then does the attention shift to establishing technical feasibility and financial viability.
While they may not have planned it, some of the most iconic businesses of our times have taken exactly this approach – rumor goes that the idea for Uber was born one cold winter night when the co-founders couldn’t get a cab – to disrupt the market to bits. But is there a framework that an organization, without the benefit of serendipity-inspired-vision, can use to Design Think its way out of digital oblivion?
Indeed, there is.
The d.School at Stanford University describes Design Thinking as an iterative five step process.
- Identify your customers and empathize with their experiences
- Build models to explain the experiences
- Brainstorm ways to improve these experiences
- Make quick and dirty prototypes (referred to as Pretotyping) of the solutions devised in the preceding step
- Test the solutions and keep what works
Building empathy: The first step in Design Thinking is to connect emotionally with users by feeling what they feel during any experience. At Infosys we also call this being at Zero Distance to customers. Building empathy is easy and obvious in theory, but is remarkably difficult to achieve in practice. It may call for setting aside something that an enterprise has been doing for years and going back to the drawing board all over again. Most organizations will balk at this. However, just because a certain solution has worked and even succeeded spectacularly, doesn’t mean it cannot be bettered. The KAZbrella is proof. This is the brainchild of Jenan Kazim, who refused to settle for the umbrella as the world has known it for 3,000 years. Railing at its flaws, he realized that most of the umbrella’s problems – that it dripped water on the floor after closing, poked other people in the eye while opening, or had to be shut before one could enter a car – arose from a faulty design which required it to close “downward” and open “upward”. By simply reversing the direction of closing and opening, so the dry side was on the outside of a closed umbrella, Kazim eliminated all these problems.
Building models: While innovators can feel empathy with users by observing or sharing their experiences, at some point they will need to formalize that insight into a model that everyone can follow. The problem is that the emotions associated with experience aren’t always easy to quantify, and they can be messy, obscure and even contradictory. The need is for a model that can accommodate this disorderliness, and nothing can beat storytelling at that. Design Thinkers have accordingly evolved a system of collaborative model building in which teams use pin boards, sticky notes, and free form drawings to tell the story of the customer’s journey and pain points along the way.
Improving experiences: The enterprise is a repository of rich knowledge, which is almost always underutilized. Design Thinking believes this learning should be available across the enterprise, so it can improve experience and inform innovation. Ideally this process should happen as naturally as possible, all in a day’s work, so to speak. One of our divisions implemented this concept with great success: During one engagement, it found that technical support offered to customers in the field was riddled with delay and inefficiencies because the technicians had to wait for resolution instructions from the back office. The Infosys team applied Design Thinking to ideate on a solution that catalogued the firm’s knowledge and built a digital assistant that used this learning to advise the technicians on how to resolve a problem on the spot.
Prototyping and testing: Prototyping in Design Thinking is about building quick and dirty solutions, iteratively, until they become perfect. It is not about going for gold right from the start.
This approach allows ideas to fail fast so they can be discarded before too much has been invested in them. A very important attitudinal difference in Design Thinking is non-judgmental acceptance of failure. Simplicity and restraint are also important tenets of Design Thinking, which cautions innovators against adding excessive features. This approach has proved itself again and again in the simple propositions of Uber, Square Cash and Google.
Design Thinking the Infosys way
The Infosys approach to design thinking is to view it as an intentional human-centered activity driven by cross functional co-collaboration and computational design that encompasses every aspect of an organization from people, objects, environments, messages, and systems to accomplish not just digital but also cultural and organizational transformation.
Emphasis is on accelerating collaboration between consultants, employees, users, and subject matter experts to help enterprises move from static products to dynamic services by
- Renewing and evolving further the existing digital capabilities to bring additional value and transform the current offering of products and services that can keep pace with the ever evolving needs of the customers
- Rethinking new business models, product and service opportunities based on disruptive trends and existing customer behaviors by applying the principles of computational design where the lines are no longer distinct between business, design, and engineering to deliver whole new ideas in services and product categories that the markets need but have not yet been conceptualized.
To tackle the present VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, Infosys spends as much as 80 percent of its time and effort in delving into the 20 percent of the unknown variables in the marketplace, experimenting with secondary and primary research via an iterative process to distill an informed point of view that has a shared understanding at the enterprise level. This helps organizations arrive at their desirable states. The journey from the desirable to the viable is then led through feasibility checks with prototype releases and viability tests.
Infosys has strategic design consulting capabilities to provide human and data centric insights using digital platforms, data, and computational tools to deliver intelligent systems that are then combined with human centric objectives and business goals to arrive at new solutions.
Every business is being disrupted by digital. Incumbent organizations, no matter how large or illustrious, are also at risk. As enterprises seek to reinvent themselves, Design Thinking comes to their rescue with a different perspective to innovation that fits right in with the needs of the digital age. It is no coincidence that the principles of Design Thinking have inspired the success of many young digital disruptors. It is time to design think your own way to success.