What is design thinking and why do diverse workforces do it better?

From 'innovation revenue' to first mover advantage, design thinking has a lot to offer

Design thinking is a long established principle in business and beyond. Organisations that take a design thinking approach are focused on end users – existing or potential – and develop their products or services with an end user perspective right from the outset. Organisations with a diverse workforce have a much better chance of taking a design thinking approach to its full potential. 

Why does design thinking matter to tech firms?

Tech firms, by their very nature, are innovators. No tech firm can thrive by standing still. Existing products and services must be updated at regular intervals, new products and services must be brought onto the market.

According to Ileana Stigliani, an associate professor of design and innovation at Imperial College Business School who teaches part of the Digital Transformation Strategy Executive Education programme, design thinking is the key to outperforming competition. “Nowadays, the success of tech companies depends on their ability to use technology to address unmet users’ needs,” she explains.

In the Executive Education Programme on Digital Transformation at Imperial, this approach is called “using design thinking to lead from the front end” she says.

“The design of successful digital solutions starts with a deep understanding of users’ needs and behaviours – the front end – rather than being pushed to the market from the back end of the organisation.”

Why a diverse workforce is crucial

To get the best from taking a design thinking approach firms should have a diverse workforce. If a firm is looking at product or service development from the point of view of its end-users, it needs to be able to think like them, analyse, plan and be a critical friend to itself like them. As Perrine Farque, a diversity and inclusion speaker and consultant tells IT Pro: “Diverse teams create more innovative solutions, and innovations are what tech companies need to survive”. She points to a 2018 study by BCG that found that companies with above-average diversity have greater “innovation revenue”, meaning they produce a greater proportion of revenue from new products and services than organisations that are less diverse.

Stigliani adds that “a design thinking team should be a multi-disciplinary team consisting of a mix of specialisations, personalities, cultural backgrounds, and so on, where team members can cover each other’s blind spots, minimise biases, challenge assumptions and avoid groupthink”.

Innovation and design thinking go hand in hand

Tech firms that innovate and find new opportunities in the market that have not been spotted before can reap great rewards. Think of the first tablet computer, something that many of us now take for granted but was a complete novelty when it first appeared. 

Firms that don’t take a design thinking approach can find themselves just working to please the mainstream. Stigliani points out that this results in missed opportunities, whereas design thinking really helps with innovation. Working just to meet the needs of mainstream users, she says, results in “overlooking areas where the real opportunities for innovation and business growth lie – at the margins of markets. Engaging with extreme users, whose behaviours and needs deviate from the norm, is not only good for business, as they represent under-served market segments, but for creativity too – rarely do average users inspire ground-breaking innovations.”                                                                                                     

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The flip side of failing to take a design thinking approach is potentially dark for tech firms. According to Stigliani, the most serious consequence of not taking a design thinking approach to product innovation is extinction. “Being able to innovate is a matter of survival,” she explains. “If tech companies don’t disrupt themselves by transforming the way they approach and solve problems, they will be disrupted.”

Take steps in the right direction

Even if the market leaders understand and use the principles, a design thinking approach taken without a diverse workforce might not come easily to all tech firms. Stigliani suggests firms should ask themselves three fundamental questions: “Are we willing to take risks and tackle problems the solutions of which cannot be found in past experiences and cannot be proven by data? Are we open to experimenting and using possible failures as learning opportunities? Do we value different perspectives and inclusive design?” Answering yes to these questions is, she said, “the first step towards becoming design-driven”.

Farque puts even more emphasis on increasing diversity, which is necessary for design thinking to realise its potential, saying that firms should set diversity goals and tie these to monetary compensations. “Goals drive behaviour [and] monetary goals drive behaviour faster,” she says. “If you are committed to diversity and inclusion, you must set goals for your leadership team that are tied to monetary bonuses. Having worked with numerous tech organisations and had countless conversations on diversity and inclusion, I have witnessed that setting diversity goals that are financially rewarded is the only route to success.”

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