In today’s rapidly changing world, many businesses are struggling to survive. The current business environment has been characterized as VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. In almost every decision-making point, the business owner is confronted with many options and depending on the factors taken into account, the number of options will increase or decrease correspondingly.

Faced with such uncertainty, many business owners revert back to traditional ways of responding to the demands of business. A quick, but fraught with subjective bias is deciding by inspiration/intuition. While this gives a quick response, this way of decision making often leads to a binary outcome NOT to our favour. The odds are loaded against you.

Another way of traditional decision making is to gather all the facts, and if many stakeholders are involved (because of the size of the business) you have endless meetings debating the pros and cons, then a recommendation by a committee of persons, and a decision either by an individual or team. Such a process is time-consuming but seems more secure and with feedback from all parties, is less likely to go south. However, in a VUCA world, this process is slow and by the time a decision is made, the situation that warrants the decision has already changed and you need to start all over again.

That’s exactly what an oil company executive told me. His company deliberated on a decision and by the time they had come to a consensus, geopolitical circumstances had changed dramatically, and they had to go back to the drawing board all over again.

With rapid change and uncertainty, you really need a more responsive way to make the best decision possible. In the rapidly changing IT industry, much use is made of a methodology known as Design Thinking. 

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a solution-based approach to problem-solving using a creative, iterative process and has these characteristics: 

1) it discovers unmet user needs. This is done by getting input from users and requires empathy from those who decide.

2) promotes collaboration to generate ideas. This requires working together with others to solve problems.

3) provides flexibility to change paths. This requires an adaptation to the needs of users and requirements of the environment in determining the course of events which adapt as requirements and/or environment changes.

4) use a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach combined with the previous principles. Design Thinking comes up with a prototype much earlier, tests are made, and feedback given to modify the prototype to suit the needs of users.

Stages of Design Thinking

Design Thinking has five stages as shown below.

The first stage, Empathise, is to engage with users and other stakeholders, to tap unmet needs, to question assumptions and to help you with the second stage which is to Define what are the issues that needed to be considered.

The first two stages provide the background to Ideate, Stage 3. Ideation is essentially brainstorming. Techniques can be employed to consider and generate all kinds of ideas, relevant and irrelevant, fairly obvious ones to not so obvious ones.

Ideas generated at this stage are then used to come up with Prototypes, Stage 4. These prototypes are then Tested (Stage 5) in real-world conditions with actual end-users. Experiences and outcomes with prototypes are then used as feedback for the second iteration of the earlier phases of Define and Ideate. The process continues to repeat itself until a prototype is found that meets the need of the design objectives whereupon production can be launched and the organization runs with it initially as a trial run and later expanded upon.

Note that the framework of Design Thinking is non-linear as it is re-iterative and allows for innovative and creative thinking. Because no idea generated is rejected out of hand without consideration, this allows for wide-ranging responses which are the work of all stakeholders involved but also meet the needs of users because of the in-built empathy.

The early prototyping which allows room for further tweaking and modification as it develops also make whatever that is created relevant to users and stakeholders. And it can be applied to many activities of a business, including strategic thinking, process improvement, project management, product creation and so forth.

So then ideas generated are carried forward to the prototype stage. The prototype is a preliminary solution which is tested in real life. Experiences and lessons learned from the prototype developed are then fed back to be re-Defined and Ideate as to what the needs and issues actually are so that the prototype can be improved upon to develop a second prototype. The cycle repeats itself again until we come up with one that satisfies users. 

For businesses, Design Thinking helps them to better identify, understand and address problems and issues that constantly trouble them and their customers. Solutions are valued over processes and creativity and innovation are certainly more of a priority than that of “this is what is always done here traditionally.”  To adopt Design Thinking is always being consonant with the times.

With the constantly changing and uncertainty of modern times, there is a case for implementing Design Thinking in the way we discuss issues and how we resolve problems, decision making, determining priorities and so on.

The Alpha Group and Design Thinking

In The Alpha Group, business owners gather to solve their business problems and work on ideas to capitalize on opportunities by using each other as a resource. The discussions are done in a structured format, similar to the first three stages of Design Thinking. Such a format makes room for innovative and creative thinking through the employment of divergent and convergent thinking patterns which the format encourages.

Indeed, members have found the format very useful for helping them generate ideas to solve problems they were facing. In fact, many members were so impressed by the power of our technique that they repeat the discussion at their own companies using the same structured format.

In doing so, they are really repeating the whole process of Empathise, Define and Ideate with stakeholders that really matter – their own staff and whoever they involve in the process. 

Doing it in their own companies has another advantage –  they can then develop their own prototypical solution which they can test and refine. So, whether they are trying to design a product, a process, a service, an experience, or even a strategy or methodology, they now have a system to think and process problems in a way that will generate solutions, one of which would be the best fit and probably will be most likely succeed.

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Dr Douglas Kong is a Certified Executive and Life Coach specialising in helping individuals, teams and organization to function optimally with peak performance in the workplace. He helps people by assisting them to overcome their personal performance barriers and by increasing their social and interpersonal functioning and communication skills. He is a retired psychiatrist whose past training and experience are focused on Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Developmental Psychiatry and Group Dynamics.