This summer my company Zilver innovation and 6 students from the Strategic Product Design master at the TU Delft have embarked on quite a little adventure. We are making a documentary, entitled ‘Design the new Business‘.
The idea of the documentary was born when I had the opportunity to host 6 of the best students of the 2010 cohort as interns. These students had just finished half of their masters, so I figured it was time for some reflection.
The classes I teach in Delft revolve around the notion that designers have the right mind-set to solve complex business problems. We try to give them the confidence to leverage from this mind-set in the real world. We do this by making it explicit to them what it is and by giving them some of the essential baggage they will need to find their way in corporate organisations.
We explain what a design mind-set entails by talking about wicked problems, about how understanding a problem and solving it take place at the same time. We talk about how visualisation skills have nothing to do with design as aesthetics but much more with the ability to grasp complexity and frame it in simple relationships. We talk about prototyping in the broad sense of the word, as business activity, envisioning and testing potential futures that enable companies to choose the right way forward. And we talk about iterative processes, empathy, understanding, teamwork, and creativity.
Then, we take them on a quick tour through the areas of business where they will hopefully contribute in the near future. We talk about the fuzzy front end of innovation, where there is no problem or project yet, only the need, or urge, or directive, to innovate. We talk about the role of brands in organisations and society and how they relate to innovation and design. And we talk about the shift companies are making from product and technology focussed to people and service focussed.
I know that I practise what I preach in Delft with my company. But for students it may be hard to imagine what their working life will look like. So what better project to give them than to have them research:
- How what they are studying is put into practice.
- If what we teach them holds true in the real world out there.
- If companies are in need of their skills.
So they set to work in July 2011.
After many discussions, various iterations of storyboards, and many late night Facebook sessions exchanging documentaries to be learnt from, the students decided to focus on three main areas:
The first: Complexity is the foundation for the rise of design thinking. A design mind-set is essential in solving complex problems.
As Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie put it in their new book ‘Designing for Growth’: “We’ve come to
the end of the runway on maximizing productivity and re-engineering processes….The analytics-first mindset works fine for process improvement, but not for innovation. Our over-reliance on analytics denies our human capacity for creativity and results in uninspiring products and services, low growth, and pessimism about the future.”. Or, to paraphrase Marty Neumeier in ‘the designful company’: organisations are dealing with problems that are so complex, in a society that is even more complex, with customers having more say than ever, that managing your way out is no longer an option. “You have to design your way out”. In other words: design thinking is a mind set that can help solve problems that traditional, linear, ‘old’ management mind-sets can’t.
The movie sets out to discover whether this is true. The students aren’t raving about design thinking, but neither are they going to declare it dead like it was the latest fad as Bruce Nussbaum did in his infamous Fast Company post. They just want to know where design thinking’s at, in big multinational organisations that don’t have time for foolishness or fads.
So the students went out and interviewed key people at companies like Intel, Volkswagen, Océ, Virgin, and Philips, to find out whether their problems have indeed become more wicked, and to what extent designers, or managers with a design mind-set for that matter, have the answers.
The second: We need a new breed of designers and a new breed of business managers. And they need to become more alike. Or at least understand each other better.
We think that while many designers contribute immense value through the products, services, communications, environments and interactions they design, not all of them can help businesses solve their wicked problems. Nothing wrong with that, the world will always need highly skilled designers. But what does it take for someone with a design mind-set to actually contribute to the solving of wicked problems within large organisations? And what does it take for a business manager to embrace uncertainty, complexity, creativity, cross-silo teamwork, and prototyping? The students are talking to educators from institutions in Delft and Muenster to find out what the designer cum business manager of the future will look like. And how design and business education are shaping up to meet changing needs.
The third: the design mind-set is already playing a role in the new business. It’s already happening.
While the blogosphere can’t get enough of discussing the birth and early demise of design thinking, we see practitioners all over the world making a solid living on applying their knowledge and skills to real companies, adding real bottom line value to the balance sheet. They have a design mind-set and they are helping these companies grow.
The students are interviewing companies like Claro Partners in Barcelona, Design Thinkers, Zilver and In10 in the Netherlands, Engine in London, Alexander Osterwalder in Switzerland, and Protopartners in Australia. They are gathering case material that proves that design thinking in practice isn’t some fluffy magic wand but a solid foundation for processes and methodologies that help companies create lasting value for their customers.
The movie is in full progress as we speak. And I can tell you it’s almost like a design project: we had no idea what problem we were solving when we started, let alone that we could predict the outcome. Two months, thousands of air miles (remind me to plant those trees) and 30 hours plus of fantastic footage later we’re finding out that the problem we’ve uncovered (let’s make a movie to explore how design is meeting business) is no longer exactly matching our ambitions. The students are blogging, twittering and discussing the project on facebook like there’s no tomorrow. But now we are also thinking of a big screening event, including speakers and a lot of discussion. We have ideas for a teaching tool kit. We might even do local screening events around the world. But maybe, once the thing’s finished, we’ll be onto something new. Who knows, it’s a design process after all……..
But first, we, err… they, have a liiiiiiiiiittle bit of editing to do.
We will keep you posted, expected release: somewhere in October. Yes, this year.