Design thinking: IT’s secret weapon for success

May 2, 20164 Minute Read

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Design thinking is a hot buzzword, especially in the tech startup world where buzzwords are getting out of control. Some IT pros, particularly the old-school among us that don’t have a lot of patience for fluff, roll their eyes when they hear these new phrases. But there’s more to it: a design approach can help your IT team take a fresh look at business challenges and opportunities, identify problems more effectively, solve them more creatively, and even build better working relationships with your colleagues.

What’s the buzz?

There are a lot of definitions of design thinking floating around—I like this one over at Forbes: “Design thinking combines creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained. It’s a mindset focused on solutions—not the problem.” The design approach might sound like something born in the creative world, but there’s something very rational about it at its core—especially since it’s a repeatable process.

This type of thinking is meant to be applied over and over again within a company, bringing diverse teams together to collaboratively solve problems, think outside the box, and innovate in ways that create value for the business. And it’s especially valuable in situations where defaulting to the old way of doing things (because that’s the way they’ve always been done) doesn’t work anymore. I’d argue that nearly every IT shop is faced with this situation today.

Outlining the design process

At Stanford’s Institute of Design, also known as the d.school, it begins with five core actions: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. All these steps put the user or the customer at the center of the process, placing a focus on their experiences and needs.

The empathy step invites you to observe users and empathize with the challenges or obstacles they may face in their day-to-day tasks. By putting yourself in their shoes, experiencing what they experience, and finding out what they really want and need, you get to the core of the problem. It’s well known that a large percentage of IT projects fail—a design approach helps protect against this by devoting big chunks of time to this first step, so when it comes time to define the issue or problem, everyone has a full understanding of the context and the users’ needs.

Next, it’s time to define the issue or problem and begin collaboratively ideating on a series of possible solutions, which are then quickly and cheaply prototyped and tested so you can quickly identify the most viable paths to success. This approach requires high tolerance for failure, so if your company is risk-averse, this could be uncomfortable at first. The good news is that the design approach builds capacity for risk-taking and experimentation, which are essential to developing truly innovative and creative solutions on a repeatable basis.

How IT can benefit from a design approach

IT is rapidly evolving—to the point that it has thrown a lot of IT people who were used to the old way of doing things off their game. Unlike in the past, IT pros now need to be adaptable and have a collaborative mindset to succeed at their jobs. With the consumerization of IT and shadow IT radically changing the relationships between IT and internal customers, it’s more important than ever that they come together to solve problems. At the same time, the challenges and opportunities IT teams and their business-minded colleagues are facing are much more complex than they used to be. Design thinking demands that you set aside old habits and ways of thinking to get to the best possible solution.

You can apply this approach to some really meaty business issues. Many businesses are struggling to get value out of their data—a design approach could be used to uncover strategic goals and opportunities and then chart a path forward to achieve them. Or it could be used to figure out how better to boost collaboration at your company. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how best to support your mobile workers’ productivity with a flexible but secure approach to IT device management. The beauty of the design approach is that it can be applied to a range of high-level business scenarios. Whatever the current or emerging challenges facing you and your team may be, design thinking addresses them with creativity and sophistication.

How to get started

For a bite-sized introduction, you can check out Stanford’s introductory guide to the design process. Or, for a more in-depth immersion, you can take their crash course in design thinking, a 90-minute video covering the fundamentals.

With design thinking as part of your problem-solving arsenal, you can level up your team to take on complicated problems and provide better, more innovative solutions that you otherwise might never have considered. How will you use the design approach to drive your IT forward?

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