Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

-Steve Jobs

Design-thinking, as the name suggests, is not a noun but rather a verb: not an end product, per se, but a process through which a superior product or outcome is created in the first place. It’s well and good for you and your design team to aim for a superior product or outcome, but what you get depends on how you get there.

Design-thinking is this how: a strategy that can be applied not only to product design and development but to systems, procedures, protocols, user experiences and even to the business itself. As a strategic process for maximizing profitable innovation, you can inspire design-thinking in your team by adhering to these six practices.

1. Cultivate trust with your team and within your team.

As international management guru Steven Covey asserts, “The first job of a leader is to inspire trust…trust is the highest form of human innovation.” Anxiety and animosity is the enemy of inspiration and creative collaboration so it’s critical to foster a climate of mutual trust. Best practices include:

  • Actively listen. Show your team members that you recognize and respect them as equals by being sincerely interested in their ideas (as well as their difficulties). Listen with the intent to understand and support rather than reprove or correct, and reflect back what you hear to ensure accurate understanding.
  • Balance advocacy and inquiry. Trust is compromised when a team leader or team member advocates for their own idea or agenda without actively inquiring of other members of the team where they stand in relation to this idea or agenda. Balancing advocacy and inquiry shows your team that you’re just as interested in and open to their experience and position as your own.
  • Say yes before saying no. Even if a member of your team comes up with an idea that you don’t like or seems unfeasible, say yes to it. This doesn’t mean uncritically adopting or going with an idea, it means respectfully acknowledging it, being willing to thoroughly explore it before dismissing it, and having the humility to remember that what might not make sense to you right now may be a game-changing idea for your business.

2. Begin at the end and work backwards.

Design-thinking is thinking that begins with questions about the end-user’s experience and then works backward toward the creation of an innovation that delivers accordingly. This approach is intrinsically inspiring because rather than focusing on how to solve customers’ problems, it focuses on how to create compelling customer experiences.

While design-thinking doesn’t shy away from identifying problems to be solved, it digs deeper into the underlying wants and needs that are at the root of a perceived problem. For example, after city officials became aware of growing dissatisfaction with their light-rail service and fare prices, they adopted a design-thinking approach.

Rather than assuming the solution lay in additional transit stations and lower fares, they began by asking how intra-city public transit could be made more enjoyable and affordable? Upon further investigation, it was discovered that many of the city’s citizens expressed a desire for alternative forms of public transportation, leading the city to implement an incredibly successful, no-cost public bike-share program as well as a campaign promoting the health benefits of walking.

3. Assume a both/and orientation.

Differences within your design team aren’t a problem to be minimized or gotten rid of but rather a powerful solution waiting to be unlocked. Inspiring innovation in a team means thinking in terms of both/and rather than either/or. Design-thinking actively recruits and innovatively integrates multiple perspectives and works creatively with rather than against differences.

When differences are recognized and purposely recruited as fuel for innovation, this creates the conditions for a proliferation of perspectives and ideas to put on the table. Further, it allows even conflict to be engaged constructively, since the very existence of conflict begs the reconciliation (via integration) of competing perspectives and ideas toward an innovative, win-win outcome.

An illustrative example of this difference-leveraging innovation is the Apple iPhone (that took a both/and rather than either/or orientation to combining a phone, MP3 player, digital camera, and handheld computer into one device). Another famous (and much emulated) example is the Volkswagen Beetle’s groundbreaking Think Small and Lemon campaigns (which proudly highlighted to strategic advantage the very things – smallness and alleged ugliness – that detractors believed would doom the Beetle to market failure).

4. Take a field trip.

Design-thinking can get you and your team outside the proverbial “box”, and that includes getting out of the office. Seek out places and activities that hold inspirational promise for and your team, whether that’s backpacking in the wilderness, exploring a museum, or even touring a competitor’s showroom or checking out their shelf space at your local retailer.

Not only is a change of scene a powerful way to help your team shift and expand perspective, taking a field trip with the intention of deliberately seeking inspiration can yield surprisingly generative results. Field trips taken to directly investigate your team’s experience (positive, negative, and neutral) with your competitor’s products or services can be especially illuminating, particularly if you allocate dedicated time afterward for your team to unpack, compare, and explore field data in relation to your own design project.

5. Allow time for incubation.

It may seem counterintuitive, but inspiration needs room to breath. It’s an oft repeated adage in the innovation literature that the real magic often happens at the water cooler. (This is a way of saying that inspiration often strikes most powerfully outside of structured efforts to innovate: in the time between scheduled meetings and strategy sessions where people are free to socialize and “unplug”.)

As the saying goes, you can’t rush the river, and one sure way to kill inspiration is to make premature demands of your team to produce. This is where a short “retreat” – a stepping back from active attempts at design-thinking into a more receptive, meditative mode – can pay powerful dividends. Initiating a formal or informal retreat or simply allowing your team to “sleep on it” – especially when you come to an impasse or a difficult decision – is a time-tested way to incubate an idea or problem toward a novel solution.

6. Engage the collaborative art of experimental play.

There’s a reason why five-year-olds out perform CEO’s in the Marshmallow Challenge, a staple exercise of design schools made famous in management circles as an exercise in rapid prototyping. Five-year-olds, unlike CEO’s (and the lawyers and business school students they also best) are masters of experimental play: collaborative, curiosity-driven, intrinsically satisfying efforts to explore for the sake of exploring and create something for the sheer fun of it. When five-year-olds are presented with their design challenge (build a freestanding structure than can support a marshmallow on top), they aren’t daunted, they’re inspired. Five-year-olds don’t see a problem to be solved; they see an opportunity for collaborative, experimental play.

Teams that can approach innovation like the five-year-old champions of the Marshmallow Challenge (who demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the innovation principle articulated by thought leader John C. Maxwell: fail early, fail often, but always fail forward), will become masters of design-thinking and rapid prototyping. Properly understood, rapid prototyping is the natural expression of experimental play where designs can be created, tested, revised, refined, and iteratively redesigned until the elusive “sweet spot” of peak innovation is reached.

At Pivot, we bring over forty years of experience in inspiring innovative design and competitive results. Contact us today and see what we can do for you and your team.