Linear thinking is a hallmark of the archetypal enterprise. Businesses pride themselves on their capacity for order and rational analysis; they thrive on technologies such as those enabling data capture and analytics. In this absolutely rational enterprise, the strategic value of fuzzy, intangible factors like intuition, creativity or inspiration is often incidental. In the past, this approach worked just fine, powering enterprises efficiently and productively through the industrial and the service economies.
But the metrics of enterprise performance have transformed significantly since those simpler days. Product quality and service efficiency are table stakes in today’s economy where delivering a unique experience is the only real guarantee for sustainable competitive advantage and enterprise value. Success in the experience economy will go to those enterprises that focus on developing innovation as an enterprise-centric capability rather than merely as a technology-centric practice.
In this radically new context, enterprises of the future will have to take a more integrated approach that augments logic, reason and analytics with a strong emphasis on human-centricity, empathy and emotion. Design thinking provides the framework that enables enterprises to blend in human elements like imagination and inspiration, with the focus on ground realities, such as a product’s “desirability” to users, or its technological feasibility and business viability.
But once the imperative has been acknowledged, how does an enterprise chart a course towards that goal?
To be absolutely clear, there is no singular off-the-shelf template that can be applied to every enterprise, even across aggregations of size, sector or market. But a good place to begin would be with an assessment of the design maturity of each individual in the enterprise.
Assessing design maturity
In the early aughts, the Danish Design Centre in Copenhagen developed a design continuum as a precursor to a study that explored the correlation between design and enterprise performance. The model says that an enterprise’s approach to design can be classified in four ways, based on how important or integrated design methods, techniques, processes and practices are with enterprise strategy. Accordingly, one enterprise might have a positively unsystematic approach, while another might look at purely aesthetic (or form, in the case of services) elements of design, the third might have progressed to incorporating design as an integral component of core development processes, whereas the most design-evolved enterprise would be leveraging it as a key influencer and enabler of enterprise vision and strategy. This broad template should help organisations generate a quick self-assessment of their own design thinking capabilities, before calling in the professionals for a more strategic and comprehensive audit as a first step to deploying design thinking throughout the enterprise.
Incidentally, both the Danish study of 2004 and a more recent study in the UK have established a clear correlation between strategic investments in design and enterprise performance. Given the fact that design has been a part of the corporate consciousness for some time now, I think it would be safe to assume that the average enterprise would slot into stages two or three on the design continuum. But just as the path to quality in the industrial economy was not about only bolting on six sigma processes to existing operations, the road to enterprise-centric design thinking is not as simple as deploying the relevant techniques, methods and processes across the organisation. Rather, it calls for a fundamental transformation of the enterprise across two key dimensions—organisation culture and organisation structure.
Defined simply, enterprise culture is a system of values and beliefs as manifested in the motivations, attitudes and behaviours of employees. For instance, an enterprise with innovation as a stated corporate value, should exhibit a culture that embraces a ‘fail early, fail often’ mindset, one of the primary tenets of the design thinking methodology. But for the typical enterprise, embracing failure runs contrary to every established convention, irrespective of stated values.
Cultural transformation, therefore, takes precedence over tools and techniques for design thinking to yield any significant or sustainable impact on enterprise performance. The imperative, as well as the implications, of this novel approach to business strategy has to be clearly articulated in order to inspire a buy-in from employees.
Most large organisation structures are built around hierarchies with a clearly defined chain of command. In addition, most organisations are also fragmented by siloes of product, function etc. into multiple insular ecosystems. Neither of these structural characteristics is conducive to the culture of design thinking, which emphasises a flat structure, and where the process of ‘inspiration, ideation, implementation’ is a collaborative non-denominational exercise.
Traditionally, ideation was a multi-functional process focused by individual disciplines and functional responsibilities. In stark contrast, design thinking espouses an interdisciplinary approach where the combined focus is on the end user and the ownership of ideas is collective.
Existing structures, therefore, can pose resistance to some of the fundamental principles of design thinking. And though it is neither possible nor advisable to tear down conventional enterprise architecture, it is necessary to redefine structures in order to create a more collaborative environment for design thinking.
The concept of skunk works became quite popular during the last century as a means for large corporations to pursue disruptive innovation without diluting their core focus and without the typical management constraints. But today, innovation is, or should be, the core focus of every successful enterprise and design thinking provides them a proven framework to drive creativity throughout their organisation. Though it is possible to embark on design thinking programs that jumpstart innovation in specific projects, the long-term focus should be on adapting the culture of today’s businesses to assimilate design thinking as an enterprise-wide capability.
The writer is VP & Head—Education, Training & Assessment, Infosys