The concept of design thinking is not unfamiliar to learning leaders who want to create meaningful development experiences. If not for the intentionality and curiosity CLOs take to deeply understand business challenges, learning organizations would perpetually miss the mark in attempting to engage learners and make an impact on their companies.
But it’s not just employee learning that benefits from design thinking, said Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The employees and the business will create greater value when working from a customer-first mindset.
Sanchez-Burks said when workers approach problems with a designer’s mindset, they open themselves up to more diverse perspectives that will inform them and enable them to create more successful and reliable solutions. This isn’t just a skill for the C-suite or senior managers, he said; It’s a perspective that’s useful for everyone.
While many facets of world affairs are changing rapidly, human connections — the way people build trust, the way people understand other’s hopes, desires and fears — aren’t changing, Sanchez-Burks said. At the University of Michigan, he teaches senior leaders and executives how to instruct their employees to apply customer-centric design in their work.
“What may very well equip leaders and people for the future is to be able to connect those two things — an awareness of technological resources and trends with an old, forgotten skillset on connecting with other human beings,” he said.
Sanchez-Burks spoke with Chief Learning Officer about the growing importance of design thinking and why businesses should encourage employees to apply its principles when tackling external and internal company challenges.
You said there are many variations of this problem-solving approach — human-centered design, customer-centric design, design thinking — but what’s at the heart of this method?
To use design thinking, at its core, is an unsurprising but surprisingly overlooked idea that we should look to people. We should look to people for their unmet needs. We should look to people for how they interact with services or products or organizational policies and practices that we’re trying to develop and implement. By doing so, we might gain A — a lot of new insight, and B — be able to develop solutions that are stickier in the sense that they’ll get implemented and be more well received. It’s really putting people first, that human component.
This sounds like it stands in almost complete contrast to an approach many are increasingly turning to: The use of big data and people analytics. Is it?
It’s not looking at focus groups or big data; it’s trying to take a deeper dive into a smaller sample. This is where you get to deploy your social and human intelligence. When we go into the workplace, we shut off our emotional radar. It’s kind of built into what it means to be professional — rational, task focused, look at the data … and that data focus is very important. But when we’re trying to understand — why people do or don’t do certain things — it requires the skills of a social psychologist or an anthropologist.
What types of skills are we talking about?
We’re talking about empathy and emotional intelligence skills, though these things are not so much skills as they are putting in effort. Being mindful, empathetic and understanding of other peoples’ needs are things we all do inherently. We just don’t apply it as much in professional contexts as we do in personal contexts. One of the ways we can do this is through more personal or mindful approaches when developing solutions and approaches to problems.
Applying these skills comes with the territory when leading and executing an impactful learning and development strategy, but are there certain areas within a company where design thinking is especially valuable?
There are two ways to think about this; where is it useful, and when is it useful. Deploying these skills is important to the execution part of a business. For instance, where there is a need to innovate — something that is becoming more common in business today — it’s useful to use customer-centric design. This thinking is especially valuable to leverage resources like human capital.
This approach is useful to employees who need to communicate opportunities they see to their bosses. They are more likely to see one and communicate it upwards. In communicating across silos, this approach should be everywhere. Having [design thinking] across the organization creates a common language, and gives everyone the chance to identify unmet needs.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.