#MakeChange: Think like a designer

Kosheek Sewchurran looks at how design thinking has been used to pioneer change in the business world. Can it do the same for the City of Cape Town?

From the Series

Design Thinking.

As the City of Cape Town lowers the by-now familiar yellow and black World Design Capital (WDC) flag at the end of this year, the inevitable question as to whether hosting the initiative has made any appreciable difference to the people in the city has to be asked. 

Cape Town set out to try something quite ambitious during its year-long tenure as World Design Capital. It went beyond just leveraging design as a tool to improve the social, cultural and economic life of the city (the stated objective of the WDC initiative), to actively employing “design thinking” to resolve some of the cities most entrenched problems, such as segregation and unemployment.

Over the past few months, the City of Cape Town has identified a sample of 76 design-led projects and programmes aimed at uplifting and improving conditions for citizens of Cape Town. Some of these have included upgrades to healthcare clinics, new parks for urban areas, youth skills development programmes and improvements to traffic and transport dilemmas. 

Richard Perez, programme director for World Design Capital at the City of Cape Town, believes that design thinking provides an effective framework and process structure, which ensures greater success and better implementation as there is more engagement with end-users. He says design-led thinking should be seen as a tool or a technique to help people “think like designers” around the challenges they are facing – whether in the private or public sector, within budgets or existing systems. 

While the idea of budgets and design may seem like polar opposites, design thinking in the world of business (and now service delivery) is gaining ground around the world. Some of the world’s most successful and fastest growing companies are design-led and “design thinking” is being employed to find solutions to a host of different kinds of problems.

In their book, Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works, Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King and Kevin Bennet provide detailed examples of the design thinking techniques used at top companies such as Toyota, IBM and 3M. These techniques include visualisation, journey mapping, brainstorming, prototyping and assumption testing.

In some cases design thinking led to greater efficiency and cost cutting, in others to successful mergers and company culture building. It is clear from the book that design thinking can be used for a wide range of business challenges. In fact, it can be used to resolve just about any situation one can imagine – from factory floor issues to product launches, all the way up to the boardroom.

For instance, computer giant IBM wanted to rethink its trade shows. It made use of design thinking to do market research, interviewing more than 100 experts in 20 fields – some not specifically related to itsindustry at all, such as educators and psychologists – to gain an idea of how people behave and feel comfortable at a trade show, for instance. This led to the redesign of the way it set up its trade shows structures. The design-thinking tool of mind mapping was used to sift through large amounts of data and spot patterns in order to develop new insights. Then the company built prototypes of new physical spaces and tested these at a smaller show. The result? Double-digit increases in client engagement leads – an increase of 78% year-on-year. 

Suncorp in Australia faced a completely different business challenge: The country’s banking giant was merging with an insurance leader, Promina, and the companies were organisationally very different. They needed to find a common strategy and smooth the merger process. Visualisation and metaphor brainstorming as well as rapid prototyping was used to engage participants and help them think more creatively about the future of the company. And after 18 months of strategic conversations rolled out at 10 business units, 94% of employees said they understood the company’s new vision and how they fitted in.

Liedtka, King and Bennet concluded that the big lesson to be learnt from the Suncorp example was that you should meet people where they are, not where you want them to be. The power of reframing is another valuable contribution of design thinking, they say. Impatience is often the biggest obstacle to innovation as many people want to rush towards solutions instead of taking time to properly examine the situation. “In a wonderful paradox, that same ambiguity that makes us so uncomfortable, it turns out, also has the potential to unleash a level of energy we rarely experience when presented with a fait accompli. Leaving space for stakeholders to be part of the discovery of new ideas, to be part of the emergence of innovation, gives meaning to their efforts and has tremendous power.” 

“In most organisations the highest payoff is not in innovating the solution but in innovating how people work together to implement the new possibilities they see amid organisational inertia, bureaucracy and risk aversion,” say the authors.

It is an intensely practical process, adds Richard Perez, that is especially valuable in situations where the stakeholders are divergent, such as in the city of Cape Town. Because design thinking involves opening up traditional ways of thinking, it can help to break down communication barriers, especially within set structures, to encourage the flow of ideas and the development of solutions.

Design thinking drives us to really question the fundamental assumptions ingrained in institutional processes that drive delivery to improve social and economic conditions. It also provides us with a robust framework within which to think about how we can change these conditions and begin to address the complex problems facing our society and our continent - such as hunger, poverty, poor health – through business and research.

Richard Perez says it is probably too early to tell if Cape Town's WDC programme has yielded any tangible results for citizens of the city, but he hopes that design thinking will drip-feed through and change the way the city approaches issues in the future.

The enduring value of design thinking lies in its ability to change mind-sets and behaviour – no easy task. As Liedtka, King and Bennet point out in their book, if one shifts people’s mind-sets, one can put into motion a series of behavioural changes with co-workers, customers and management, as well as with clients and suppliers. It can change how people see the world and ultimately, in the hard outcomes they – and their organisations – create.

Kosheek Sewchurran is an associate professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business, programme director of the executive MBA and co-convenor of the annual Business of Social and Environmental Innovation (BSEI) conference at the GSB. 

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