Can design thinking democratise innovation?

Maureen Thurston & Jeanne Liedtka | 24 March 2021 | 33:09

Podcast Transcript: Can design thinking democratise innovation?

Maria Rampa: Hello, I’m Maria Rampa. Welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined about design thinking.

These days, there’s a lot of buzz around design thinking in the business world. But what exactly does it mean and where did it come from? Tim Brown, Chair of global design and innovation company IDEO, describes design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” While IDEO played a major role in making design thinking mainstream, the practice actually dates back to 1935, when philosopher and educator John Dewey melded aesthetics and engineering principles.

Our guest today, Jeanne Liedtka, has spent over two decades developing design thinking tools for business, and educating executives and MBAs on how to embed design thinking in organisations to foster innovation and achieve success. Companies like IBM have successfully embedded design as a process in their organisation and achieved a greater than 300 per cent return on investment. However, not all companies utilising design thinking have achieved that level of success, which raises the question - are non-designers really equipped to use design thinking effectively?

In this episode, we explore how design thinking is evolving to enable businesses to create real value for customers. Jeanne Liedtka is an author and professor of design thinking at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Interviewing Jeanne is Maureen Thurston, Aurecon’s Chief Experience Officer, who is a passionate design thinking practitioner. Jeanne and Maureen discuss design thinking as a social technology, why creativity isn’t just for artists and how to democratise the process of innovation.

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Maureen Thurston: In the last 10 years, you've proven yourself to be quite the prolific writer. In addition to your full-time gig, teaching at the Darden business school, you've written five best-selling books, along with numerous articles in HBR, all of them talking about the investment in design thinking as a catalyst for business growth. You're a lecturer, you're a professor, you spend a lot of time hanging out with CEOs at CEO summits talking about the merits of design.

I'm really keen to give our listeners a little bit more background though, a better understanding of what a nice accounting graduate like you, who took a nice traditional corporate then consulting career path, and then, all of a sudden, you make this shift, a shift that is taking design into the business landscape.That's fairly dramatic. What were the intersections or the inflection point that actually resulted in you having this career of bringing the art and science of design to the executive world?

Jeanne Liedtka: I'm sure, like so many of the people listening to this who are engineers and business managers, I was always told that I wasn't one of the creative ones. Of course, the last thing anyone wants is a creative accountant. But even when I became a business strategist, and went to work for the Boston Consulting Group, I think the message was, stick to the numbers, because that's what you know how to do and what you're good for. And the discovery that I actually could be creative, as can absolutely all of us, has been just a tremendous inspiration, and has really created a surge of energy. I like to joke that I'm a late bloomer. I published that first book when I was in my late 50s. But design just opened my eyes to this whole new world.

So, I've been interested for a long time in how organisations form their strategies through the conversations people have at every level of the organisation. I was just fascinated at the way in which we talk to each other made new things possible. I was looking for an answer. And I think the first step in the discovery of that answer was when I came to the University of Virginia, about 25 years ago, and discovered the world of architectural design. Now, we are very proud of our grounds. They were designed by Thomas Jefferson himself personally. He founded the university, and the design of our grounds comes out of a passionate belief that Jefferson had around the nature of education for a democracy. So, he designed a university with this view of the academical village. And the academical village was a community of learners where faculty and students lived together and learned together. And every element of the university, from the design of the buildings through the self-governance mechanisms that he created, through the nature of the curriculum that inspired him. And for me, that was a wonderful metaphor for what we do as business people when we formulate strategy. I mean, strategy isn't about filling out the blocks in a strategic plan. It's about envisioning a new future so vividly that we can make it real.

Now, we often in architecture, create a real physical space, and that physical space encourages particular kinds of behaviour, and it discourages others. And I began to think of a how could we make more clear to the business people I worked with, this incredible inspirational mission that they were on, that they had a responsibility to create this new future with their people. And so, for a long time, I thought of architecture as a powerful metaphor for the process of strategy making. I would take groups of executives to our main campus, and I would get one of our architectural historians to give them a tour and talk about Jefferson's design and why it looks like it did.

But what was frustrating, though, is a metaphor will only take you so far. What I felt was lacking was the ability as a teacher to help people translate this wonderful metaphor of design, into a set of outcomes in their own world. And, coincidentally, about that time, I wandered into the world of design thinking. It became very quickly apparent to me that the tools and the process that designers were using, if they could be codified, and translated into ways that managers could understand and embrace, they could provide that link from metaphor to reality, and help us develop a whole new set of competencies in the people we work with. And I think it was the thrill of that realisation, and the desire to be part of making that translation that has really fuelled all of my work over the last 10 years.

Maureen Thurston: That is an extraordinary journey. Was there a specific moment, though, when design thinking just flashed in front of you?

Jeanne Liedtka: I wish I could remember when I first saw the language of design thinking. At some point, it must have wandered into an article on architecture, because I spent a fair amount of time talking to architects after I discovered design thinking, and I think the real aha moment came when a group of colleagues and I were analysing the results of some research we had been doing.

So, we were doing research on organic growth leadership. We were studying managers in a variety of what we'd call pretty mature, low growth businesses, who in spite of their market growth rates, had managed to dramatically grow revenues and not just riding the coattails of a growing market, but they had seen opportunities where other people didn't see them. And they were really an extraordinary group of people who were just intuitively able to sense needs and by their nature, they were experimental. And they wanted to know customers as people. And we were talking about whether or not they were teachable, and because there was a strong personality element in all of these managers. And I know at some point, just looking at their list of behaviours and the way they approached the world, the design tools just came to mind. And we developed this hypothesis that if we taught a very basic rudimentary set of design tools, like customer journey mapping was probably the first one we tried to teach with some level of diligence.

If we taught them to managers who weren't by nature programmed the way our growth leaders were, that they could in fact, mimic the behaviour of the growth leaders. And that hypothesis, you know, what, 100,000 students later on Coursera, and many thousands, face to face, really all over the world? That hypothesis has proved correct.

Maureen Thurston: Let me just take you down one quote that I have reserved for you. And I would like to get your sense of it. So, there was a gentleman by the name of Jim Banners and he did a presentation at Davos and the quote is, "The world needs a fifth industrial revolution to flower up a new Renaissance stage. It will be marked by unprecedented creativity and a sense of shared common purpose as we work together to blend the progress and profits towards purpose and inclusivity". What do you think? Are we on the threshold of a new Renaissance? Do you think we have a Fifth Industrial Revolution ahead of us? And how do you think design might make a difference if we're going in that direction?

Jeanne Liedtka: We could all say that, we certainly hope so. We'd very much, many of us, like to believe that the world is moving towards inclusivity, and human centeredness. And I think there's some good evidence that it is. Unfortunately, there's also some evidence that it's moving in the opposite direction. This whole world we live in now, with, it's amazing, digital revolution.

In many cases, that digital revolution that has helped us in so many ways, seems to be polarising us in other ways, making it more difficult to be inclusive of people who don't see the world exactly the way we do. So, I think if the world isn't moving towards inclusivity, we have to help it get there. That's why design thinking for me is so critically important. I really think that the superpower of design is allowing us to have more productive conversations across difference. And that's what we urgently need today. We can stack conversations with diversity. We can put people in them who think differently, who look differently, who come from different backgrounds who believe different things.

But in the end, all that happens is entrenching us in our own belief system and debating someone else's as to right and wrong. Only new ways of conversation will help us to break that log jam and begin to listen in different ways, to talk in different ways. We know from decades of research in the creativity space, that the single most reliable path to creativity is diversity. Most of us, no matter how hard we try, just can't, on command, think of something we have never thought of before. It's not the way people are wired. So, we need the provocation of other people who think differently, to inspire us to see things that we never would have seen without that provocation. So that's what design does. When it works, it allows us to take a diverse group of people, and to use that diversity, to create solutions that none of them could have seen alone.

But to get there, we have to figure out how to navigate that diversity. We're trained to be debaters. Peter Sangay said this incredibly eloquently many years ago in the Fifth Discipline, when he talked about the way in which debating on the ladder of inquiry, where we hold where we wage are debates, solution to solution will almost never allow us to realise the newer, higher order possibilities that break the compromises that we're living with today. And so, I think, the world desperately needs new ways of conversing. Design thinking presents a teachable, scalable set of tools to begin to equip us to take advantage of this diversity that we know we need.

Maureen Thurston: In the new book that you do have coming out in April, "The innovator’s journey, how design thinking shapes us as we shape designs", you make reference to the popular ethos that design thinking is a process, and a set of tools. But you also write that “the transformational power of design lies beyond the method and resides within the mindset”. Taking a page from Edward Deming and the Total Quality Movement you've written, and I quote, "we need to be someone new to create something new." Could you explain to me what it is that you mean by "becoming someone new"?

Jeanne Liedtka: I've always been intrigued by a quote from Heidegger. He talks about something called "the withheld", and the withheld is this higher, better self that lives within all of us, that we withhold from people who are usually not our closest family and friends. And I think that's particularly true in the workplace.

We go into work, or we enter our Zoom calls as work looks like these days, and we withhold our authentic selves, we withhold who we really are because of the other kind of culture that we've constructed about what it means to be a business person. And the trouble with that is that the withheld doesn't ever come out unless it receives the invitation to do so, unless we create a space that’s safe for people to bring this higher, better, more human self that has been there all along. It's not really new. But it's certainly suppressed. But it's that withheld, it's that human to human connection, that is the underlying source of creativity and innovation.

Artificial intelligence may do many, many things for us, but the pieces that we hold on to that still matter, if we want to create a world tomorrow that looks different than the one today, rely on our humaneness to make them happen.

Maureen Thurston: Also mentioned in the book, “for us to become the best version of ourselves”, you mention the need for a developmental pathway. And you refer to it as social technology for innovators and for leaders. What is this thing called a social technology? They seem to be diametrically opposed.

Jeanne Liedtka: That's because we've been brainwashed to think in our world that technology means digital. I mean traditionally, if you go back and look at the original meaning of the word technology, technology was a way that transformed knowledge into action. So, it basically was a set of tools. If you think back to the industrial revolution in that initial technology, it was a way of making things happen. I think it's time to rescue the notion of technology, from sole ownership by the digital world, and begin to think about what combining a human based social technology, how we interact with each other, how we form networks, how we have conversations, interact with all the things made possible by this digital technology. Because the digital technology alone seems unlikely to help us.

Technology left to its own devices, is not going to solve the major problems that we have that are human-centred, we need to complement that technology with a way of translating our humaneness into action in the day-to-day. So that is why I think of design thinking as this kind of social technology. We worry a lot these days that the downside of the popularity of design thinking is, it's kind of the usual business tendency to take any new idea, reduce it to a one day workshop, and then convince yourself that you've equipped people to actually go out and do this.

So, design done badly, it's still better than no design at all but it will not achieve the transformational effects that we know design thinking is capable of, because those transformational effects require deep shifts in mindset on the part of those using it in order to trigger the things that we're looking at, like superior outcomes for customers. And so, in this new work, we've really stepped away from talking about what design is, what the tools are, what the process is, what it looks like in action, and instead really tried to go deep to understand the experience of non-designers, learning design thinking, and the kinds of changes, not only in skill set, but more deeply in mindset, and really who they are. That each stage of the design thinking process, when it's done correctly, triggers.

Maureen Thurston: You can also tell when have a roomful of individuals, and they're starting to work with these design tools. You can almost see their brains clicking over and stepping into new places that they hadn't played with in a long time. You can literally see the light bulbs go off in the room above their heads, because they change their demeanour, their look, everything.

Jeanne Liedtka: Because they're discovering a capability set that probably for most of their lives, like me, when I was an accountant and a business strategist, we've been told that was something we couldn't do. And our job was to sit around and wait for what I call the Moses myth, ala, the great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, yes, they exist. But creativity comes from other sources as well. And the rest of us don't have to just sit and wait for them to invent things that we can scurry off and do. Each of us has the opportunity within our own area of influence, to be enjoying that same kind of creative breakthrough and making people's lives better that we touch.

Maureen Thurston: Years ago, when I was working at INSEAD, my interactions with my MBAs, they would come up and say exactly the same thing. We're not creative. And they would actually be apologetic for the fact that they did not believe they were creative. And I would ask them why they thought that. And they would come back to me and say, with all genuine authenticity. 'Well, I don't know how to sing, I don't know how to dance, and I don't know how to draw'. They had just boxed creativity in this artistic expression without actually understanding the thinking that's attached to creativity. And it was so sad.

Jeanne Liedtka: We have so many myths about creativity that we've all bought into. One is the lone inventor myth, which we know is rarely true. But the other myth is that creativity is about novelty. It's about creating something new to the world. So that if what you bring is anything less than the origin of the iPhone, that it doesn't deserve to be called creativity. That is a debilitating and terrible way to see creativity.

As business people, creativity's goal is not novelty, it's creating value for the people we serve. And we can all create value. We know that probably most value creation doesn't come from inventing something new to the world. It comes from taking something that's been invented elsewhere, and bringing it into our industry, or it comes from taking two things that weren't related before, and putting them together.

Whenever anyone tells me that creativity is a novelty, my response is, think about wheels on luggage. How long had wheels been there? And how long have we had luggage, and us old people can remember a time when we carried suitcases through airports, and didn't have wheels. What value creation that was. And yet it's not novelty. We need to kind of bust some of these myths to free people to realise that they in fact, even if they can't draw and they can't sing, and they can't dance, they can create new value for the people that they want to serve. They just need a little bit more help maybe to do it in a little bit more structure than your average designer would.

Maureen Thurston: And I love within the context of chasing down this value creation piece, you have a wish list that you attach to the process of innovation. You talk about this quest to create new value for innovators. In your first wish, because you have four of them, you're very explicit. So the accounting thing still is working out for you. So the first one is make better choices. Your second one is reduce risk and cost. The third one is increase likelihood of implementation and four, increase organisational ability. There's a lot there. But there's really nothing there that's new. It's very common sense. The fact that you have to, after all this time, because you have been in this conversation with the world through your courses, and through the books you’ve written, why do we have to keep telling them pretty much the same thing we've always been telling them? Why is it not sticking?

Jeanne Liedtka: I guess for two reasons. Specifying the destination that organisations need to get to, in order to survive in this kind of crazy, ever changing world we live in today is not a hard task. It's pretty obvious where we need to get, but the hard part is figuring out how to get there. And despite talking about things like improving the probability of implementation, reducing the risk and cost of innovation, making organisations more adaptable, bringing higher value solutions to our customers, despite talking about that, for decades, many large organisations really haven't made much progress in actually building the pathway to that destination.

And so, I think of design thinking as a pathway that is new to many of us. It's certainly not new to designers, but to business people, it is quite new, and it is quite different than our traditional approaches to decision making. And that's why it's so valuable. Design thinking doesn't look like what we've already got, as far as a business toolset goes. And so, it's very attractive to us. And yet at the same time, it's hard to do, because it rests on a foundation of philosophies and values and practices that are the antithesis of the way large organisations which are built for stability and control operate. And I think it's why in our work, we've leaned so much into the need for process, and structure in ways that designers are kind of horrified by. So, we started off with this notion that there were four questions, what is going on today? What if we could do something different tomorrow? What works, actually out in the marketplace? And what wows and fulfills both our needs and the customer's needs?

So we start off with these four basic questions and tried to teach people. Well, that didn't get very far. So we started with the tool. So we had 10 design tools that we taught. But even that didn't get us far enough, because people could use the tools, but they didn't know how to put them together. So then we added steps. We started off with like, I think, 10 steps, then we realised that the whole front end, people were defining the problem so narrowly, so we added yet more steps. So at this point in time, we feel pretty good with our 15 steps that we put people through, which is just ridiculous, right? We're talking about helping people to be more creative. And then we're describing a process that has 15 steps. How can that possibly be a good thing?

I think of it as fighting bureaucracy with bureaucracy. What designers don't realise, when they are troubled by the linearity and the artificial simplicity of design thinking methods, is they don't need all this structure because they are intuitively, and through many years of training, oriented to think that way. The rest of us have had no training and we've been oriented to think almost the opposite way. And by the way, we're terribly afraid of making a mistake and failing at anything. So as a result, in order to get people into the design thinking tools and process enough, in order to make them feel safe enough to try out this thing that can feel very scary and new and uncertain. You have to dress it up like every other process that's already there in their organisation. And if I just follow the process and the steps and do the tools correctly, good things will happen with a high degree of probability'. Now, the amazing thing is that is absolutely true. But it doesn't seem like it should be true. But the comfort of knowing that, is what gives people the courage to try out these new behaviours, after a lifetime of basically being taught quite a different set of behaviours.

Maureen Thurston: How are you actually addressing the need for an organisation, senior leadership, to actually invest in design?

Jeanne Liedtka: I think this is where the accountant in me comes back. We know in organisations, you have to demonstrate impact. To those of us who are religious converts in the design thinking space, this is very frustrating. Because we know it works. And then you run into this brick wall of trying to discuss in business terms, why this thing is so powerful, and why people should do it. And I think most of us run from that. And this idea of demonstrating the ROI of design thinking is one that even as academics, we have only begun to make a modest level of progress on. But it's absolutely critical. It's just complicated. So mostly, we're looking for business outcomes. It's new product sales, it’s efficiency improvements in response time, it's lower costs of production, right? It's stuff that we can count. And that's important. But it's not everything.

So you can't just look at whether your revenues went up as a company after you put in design thinking because of the number of other variables arrived. So you need to get pre-test pre-intervention metrics, in order at the end of a process to gather a new set of comparative metrics and demonstrate that it works. There's been some lovely research done on that by Forrester, a big research agency, around IBM's use of design thinking in their teams. And they have the luxury of control groups. All the IBM teams that have not been practicing design thinking, for years, and whose performance has been monitored. So it's relatively easy to demonstrate impact there. You can look at the performance of the design thinking teams around issues like customer satisfaction, the length of time it gets them to agree on a solution, the cost involved in getting to a satisfactory solution, all of these kind of metrics. And you can compare them to those same metrics for groups who aren't using design thinking. And you can demonstrate quite rigorously and compellingly the impact of design thinking. And Forrester has done that. And even in the small sample that they do at IBM, they assess the ROI at over 300%.

A lot of our recent work has been in trying to specify a set of competencies. And then you've got the cultural impacts. You've got business outcomes through projects, you've got personal competency development, and then you've got the shifting culture. And we see that in the form of enhanced collaboration, more diverse network building, greater trust in people you're working with, more engagement in the day-to-day work of a project, all of these cultural elements that translate, but only indirectly, to very positive outcomes are really hard to capture and calibrate. Thus far the best we've got is self-report. We have developed an instrument that basically asks a group of people practicing design thinking to self-report and assess on a one to five scale from occasionally to always, to what extent have you observed these outcomes associated with the use of design thinking. But self-reports are a long way away from the level of rigor that we'd really like to see. But it's a start. It’s better than nothing.

Maureen Thurston: I have to say that every single renaissance, every revolution, every bureaucracy, that's out there needs someone like you to show us the way to make better choices and helping us grow our businesses through the creation of genuine value. And I have to say, Thank you, because you continue to prove the transformational power of design based on the research that you've done. Your stories are always compelling. And I've counted myself very lucky to have you as a friend all these years. And to be perfectly honest with you, I believe you are a poet.

Jeanne Liedtka: Oh, aren't you wonderful. I am a member of the Woodstock generation, of course, the tail end of it. So one of the things I cherish above all else is subversiveness. And I think that the beauty of the truly revolutionary quality of design thinking is it's a Trojan horse. It looks so innocent on the outside, but democratising the process of innovation is one of the most revolutionary things I can think of so I'm enjoying my role as a quiet subverter of bureaucracy and a democratiser of innovation.

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Maria Rampa: I hope you enjoyed this fascinating discussion on how design thinking can help businesses grow. If you’re new to Engineering Reimagined, hit the subscribe button on Apple Podcasts or Spotify and also give us your feedback by leaving a review. You can also follow Aurecon on social for updates about podcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Show notes

There’s a lot of buzz these days around design thinking in the business world, but what exactly does it mean and where did it come from?

According to Tim Brown of IDEO, design thinking is “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Although it has been around since 1935, not all companies utilising the practice have achieved success. This begs the question: are non-designers equipped to use design thinking effectively?

For this Engineering Reimagined episode, Aurecon’s Chief Experience Officer Maureen Thurston and Jeanne Liedtka, an author and professor of design thinking at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, discuss design thinking as a social technology, why creativity isn’t just for artists and how to democratise the process of innovation.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Maureen Thurston and Jeanne Liedtka. 
Maureen Thurston - Chief Experience Officer, Aurecon

Maureen Thurston

Chief Experience Officer, Aurecon

For over 30 years, Maureen has played at the intersection between business, creativity and culture, leveraging design as an instrument of strategy to envision the future, reimagine models, systems and structures and invent more meaningful value for clients. She is currently the Chair of Good Design Australia and an Adjunct Professor at UTS.

Jeanne Liedtka  - Professor of Business Administration, University of Virginia

Jeanne Liedtka

Professor of Business Administration, University of Virginia

Jeanne teaches both MBAs and executives about innovation, organic growth and design thinking. She has taught thousands of people in her work at Darden and though her online Design Thinking courses on Coursera. Her most recent book, Experiencing Design: The Innovator’s Journey will be available in June 2021.

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