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Teaching Chaos


Design thinking has become the go-to philosophy for creativity and innovation, says Adam Oxford, but it remains mired in misconception, and the skills required are hard to teach.
Image: ©iStock Image: ©iStock

Everyone wants to be an innovator. It’s a word that has been so overused for the last 20 years to describe the aspirations of businesses and product managers that it has almost lost its meaning. One way to stimulate innovation is “design thinking”, and even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably come across the many tenets to spin out of it that have become common parlance; if you’ve been told to be iterative, encourage failure, “think outside the box”, the person talking has been influenced by design thinking.

At its core, design thinking is exactly what it says it is: it’s about approaching problems like a designer, rather than a technician. Make things that are usable and “human-centric”, and any one of a dozen other buzzwords. And it can be encountered every day.

“There are many ‘design’ processes and models out there,” says Khaya Mtshali, a consultant for Village Design Research and lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, “but whenever you are collecting and interpreting data to understand what’s going on (analysis), then carefully, intelligently and skilfully doing something about it (synthesis), you are already engaging in a design process.”

The notion of design thinking, as opposed to scientific or artistic thinking, is not new, but the application of design thinking to business problems is still a relatively new discipline.

But while some of the tactics of design thinking, such as brainstorming, ideation and using Post-it notes to scribble down ideas in a workshop, are common, the problem with design thinking in many areas of business today, Mtshali says, is that the process is often misunderstood. It’s easy to copy a product, he says, but trying to emulate the creative processes that preceded an iPhone is much harder than competitors often realise.

Meetings that are supposed to be about finding creative solutions to problems can become unengaging, or, worse, actively discourage innovative thought and become a platform for the HIPPO (highest individually paid person’s opinion). “There must be rules and goals in the space that everyone adheres to,” Mtshali says. “For employees, one of the most powerful killers of innovation and creativity is fear, specifically a fear of being wrong and a fear of being judged.”

To this end, the environment is extremely important (see “Bankers at play”).

“Safe spaces allow one to address both the organisation’s and the employee’s fears,” says Mtshali.

Bringing it inside

Some South African businesses have made design thinking a cornerstone of their success, particularly some of the banks and corporates, such as Discovery, which has used the techniques to develop prototypes of some of its best-known products in just a few days. But the challenge for many is that managers are often not very good at it and don’t have a good understanding of what design thinking really is – and nor are they trained to be.

This, says Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Business School South Africa, is something business schools need to be more willing to teach.

“Business schools focus on the processes involved in taking something that’s viable and making it more profitable,” Foster-Pedley says. “From that perspective, the creative process looks freaky, dangerous and flaky. The odd thing is that the successful product you’re working on had that creative spark at the outset, but as you focus on monetisation, creative processes start to look irresponsible, immature and a waste of money.”

Or to put it another way, “offices are necessary for managing scalability and finances, but they’re terrible for managing innovation”.

The design thinking approach is to be constantly iterative, and focuses on improving a product in response to feedback from users. This mantra has been adopted by software developers and codified in the “Agile” programming technique, which is adhered to by teams at all major technology companies, including Facebook, Google, Uber and so on. It’s inherently disruptive, because it holds that anything can and should be improved. It’s a philosophy more corporates are desperate to adopt internally, because, in the digital age, they are increasingly under threat from startups, which have lower overheads and are more prepared to take a risk.

“Entrepreneurs enter the market with more creative ideas,” says Foster-Pedley. “So, bigger companies are feeling vulnerable, afraid of competitors, and want to disrupt themselves.”

He points out that this presents a conundrum for those who – rightly – believe South Africa should be equipping more people with the skills they need to become entrepreneurs and start the small businesses the economy desperately needs.

“Don’t train entrepreneurs to be businesspeople,” he says. “We need to make entrepreneurs more creative and confident in what they do, and do it better in that creative chaos.”

The challenge for business schools, says Foster-Pedley, is that design thinking is hard to pin down and quantify. “We teach a few bits of knowledge,” he explains, “but the practice of thinking, looking at the vagueness that surrounds that, isn’t taught.”

If that’s starting to sound a bit too ephemeral, don’t worry.

“It’s not just about hippy stuff,” Foster-Pedley adds. “You still need exceptional skills and education to make brilliant products.”

The end, not the means

Brett Parker, the managing director of SAP Africa, says design thinking and digital transformation go hand-in-hand.

“Digital transformation is not a process,” Parker says. “It is actually an end goal, a new state of business defined by a revolution in technology. Getting there requires transformation on a different level – a transformation that enables people.”

By mixing lots of voices and ideas, he says, “it helps companies be empathetic around customer and business needs, use collaboration to bring functions and perspectives closer together, and aims to be highly iterative so to better understand and embrace the market”.

The danger, he says, is that an overreliance on digital tools can be just as much of a constraint as becoming dependent on doing things a certain way because that’s how they were always done.

“Companies seek to improve on existing solutions and discover ‘comfortable’ problems that can be turned in a familiar context,” he says, “but real innovation means going where the business has not gone before – and for that, humans are crucial.”

So, can design thinking be taught? The good news is, yes. Parker describes design thinking as “a human-centred approach to innovation”, and, in doing so, echoes the words of one of the key proponents of the philosophy, Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO. It was IDEO that, in the 1990s, was instrumental in introducing design thinking to businesses and encouraged non-creatives to “think like a designer” at work. Today, IDEO U remains one of the world’s leading industrial design houses, and runs online courses in design thinking through its IDEO U website.

Closer to home, South Africa is doing pretty well at teaching design thinking. In addition to courses such as the one Mtshali teaches, the University of Cape Town has recently opened up its D-School, an institute that SAP’s Parker describes as “only the third of its kind globally”, and likens it to similar schools in Stanford, USA, and Potsdam, Germany.

“We will know that design is being adopted widely in South Africa when businesses come knocking at our doors to hire our graduates,” says Mtshali.

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