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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pek

How to Be a Design-Thinking Executive

Article featured on Entrepreneur:

Business executives are the people steering the ship towards its rightful destination.

Over the years, I have worked with at least 5,000 top global leaders across various industries to guide them in becoming more innovative. As a seasoned consultant, I have seen that business leaders who embrace design thinking propel companies to business success. Design thinking is one of the approaches that can help you and your business discover your advantage over the competition.

Many Fortune 500 companies have learned to integrate design thinking into their business. Now, they are reaping its benefit on their business growth and bottom line.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is defined as an approach to solving problems by focusing on the needs of your customers by using a wide variety of human-centered techniques. Customers are the lifeblood of your business. Hence, by understanding their needs, you can create solutions that often lead to better products or services for the benefit of your customers.

In design thinking, innovation occurs at the convergence point of desirability, viability and feasibility. Desirability is about what is desirable to your customer, while viability refers to if it is economically viable for your business. On the other hand, feasibility is about how feasible the idea is with current technology.

Design thinking is not a new concept. It has been around since the 1950s. In the previous decades, most entrepreneurs paid little attention to how design thinking can help their businesses. Today, amidst a competitive market, many business owners rely on design thinking to drive growth.

When talking about design thinking, it is about being fit or fitness. In one of my podcasts, I got a chance to discuss with the ultimate design thinking leader — Jim Hackett. Hackett is the former CEO of the Ford company. He says there are many brands of pickups in the market, but why do people want to buy their brand versus the other brands?

Hackett gave an example using a garden with a red flower and a blue flower. You plant each of them and you do speed photography of the flowers for the entire duration of the summer. At the end of that summer, you noticed that they did not grow the same way. You might ask why the blue flower grew faster than the red one. Hackett explained that something happened in its propagation that gave the blue flower the advantage. It could be the moisture, the sunlight or the nutrients. This is why companies should think about design rather than competition: The blue flower took advantage of the sunlight, while the red flower did not.

Significance of design thinking in business

There is a sea of competition in the market today, and we are experiencing a changing customer preference. As a result, business organizations are continuously creating new products that resonate with changing customer preferences to boost their sales and remain relevant in their industry.

Whenever a business develops a new product, it requires a workforce, budget and machinery. Business owners can attest that creating a new product is an expensive undertaking. Hence, your new product must address your customers' needs to ensure that you will get a return on investment. By applying design thinking, you can focus your efforts on solutions that people actually need.

In 2017, a leading global bank sought my team's help in guiding its top leaders to become more competitive and more active. We brought together the company's top 500 leaders, which were segmented into the company's seven top strategic priorities from technology to customer service. We utilized design thinking to help them first understand what the key issues are. Then, we helped them discover key insights related to that topic. Through various creativity and critical thinking techniques, the company's business leaders successfully generated many different ideas. Then, through iteration, we helped them select the most promising ideas that eventually become its product.

Through design thinking, the global bank developed over 50 new solutions that accelerated initiatives across the company's business lines. Its business leaders successfully pilot tested 14 projects that drove substantial revenues to the bank. The company also developed several in-person and digital tools to build closer emotional ties with its customers.

The global bank's experience only emphasizes the value of embracing design thinking in your business. It also highlighted that design thinking should start from the top leaders of the company.

Executives must embrace design thinking

Design thinking is a well-proven approach to problem-solving. However, design thinking should start from the top of the company, then trickle down to other organization members. It is the role of executives to integrate design thinking in all the company's processes. They are responsible for helping embed it on their team's DNA.

Moreover, strong leadership is essential in implementing design thinking in your business. The role of executives is vital in helping employees cope with the discomfort associated with design thinking. However, executives can only guide other members within the organization if they embrace design thinking. You can never effectively preach something you do not believe in.

Hackett noted that among the challenges that a design thinking leader will face, one of the biggest is that no one seems to understand what you are talking about at first. He recalled when he was with a furniture company, he told the business that if the computer becomes mobile, people will no longer need office desks. Nowadays, with the advent of smartphones and tablets, your workstation no longer revolves around your office desk. It revolves around your smart devices. Most people within the organization will fail to see that the organization needs to transform and adapt to a world where everyone's moving with their computing.

Like in a garden, you will observe that everything will compete for sunlight and moisture. So, what are you doing to have an advantage? He emphasized that plants will mutate to get more sunlight and moisture. So, in business, you need to change your fitness to thrive. He noted that you need to realize that a product was fit for purpose but it is not. Organizations need design-thinking leaders to ensure that their product remains relevant to the ever-changing taste of the consumer and business landscape.


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