What’s wrong with this statement? ‘A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.’

Design Thinking is a popular phrase just now. It’s reached that level of popularity where so many people are talking about it that, inevitably, some of them don’t really understand what it is. And where some of those who’ve spent years developing a client base using Design Thinking as their VP, are jumping off the bandwagon and starting to deny its value.

In the same way that early evangelists of the Toyota Production System (lean manufacturing) moved on to shiny new things, so have some advocates of Design Thinking. But the value of the Design Thinking methodology and its transformative effect is hard to argue against.

Let’s have a look at what Design Thinking actually means (there’s more to it than a workshop and some coloured sticky notes).

You may see services described as using design thinking, solution-focused design, or human-centred design. The ambition is the same in each case. The main difficulty is giving yourself up to seeing the world through the eyes of your customers.

Classically, where a fiduciary imperative drives the business plan, a particular mind-set persists: for example, our stakeholders demand growth, our sales last year were £1MM, and our EBITDA was at 5%. OK – we need to drive the top line, cut the bottom line and go for £1.5MM, showing an earnings increase of X%. Fill in your own numbers.

Now, let’s see how that worked for Toys ‘R’ Us. We’ve got X number of customers coming to us and we turn over Y. Great – next year we need to hit Y +20%, and improve the visitor experience and footfall to do it.

Meanwhile, outside this standard reckoning, customers decided that parking outside a store in winter and dragging kids around while they kicked and screamed, because you wouldn’t buy them the thing merchandised at kids’ eye-level, was a bad idea. Instead, Amazon made toy shopping a different proposition, stole the Toys ‘R’ Us business, footfall fell and basket value dropped. Toys ‘R’ Us lost so much revenue that their overheads overtook their turnover, and the rest is retail history.

Design Thinking approaches scenarios like this from a different angle.

It asks, at the macro level, what do we see happening in your market place? What are your consumers doing? What are your competitors doing?

Operationally, we’ll ask – just because your machines make a thing today, do we know the market will be there for ever? Think about the guys making exhaust pipes and petrol tanks as cars become electric. It seems obvious that this is an example of a market already seeing some shrinkage. Just because sales of EVs are only one or two in ten right now, and the full effect hasn’t been felt yet, doesn’t mean it’s not coming, and soon.

So, what’s wrong with this statement: ‘A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved’ (Charles Kettering).

In essence, nothing. It assumes that, having acknowledged the issue, the best way to address it is to get into problem-solving mode and sort it out.

From a Design Thinking perspective, we might say, ‘a problem well-stated is a chance to reveal a new opportunity.’ In fact, by looking at the customer-centric reason for the problem arising, we’ll see the core issue. Back to exhaust pipes and toys: when your sales drop, you can discount these things as much as you like. If no-one wants to drive that car, or visit that retail location, you’re dead in the water.

This doesn’t always resonate the first time we explain it, so here’s another way of looking at it:

You need to put a shelf on the wall. What’s your first thought?

For most of us, ‘I need a drill.’

The design thinker’s would be, ‘I need a hole.’ Not quite the same.

In the sequence of steps you’ll take to get the hole, you’ll probably use a drill. But the solution is the hole.

Stand back and look at the problem from a new angle, and there may be holes on the wall already. Maybe that wall isn’t the best place for it anyway, or maybe the thing you were going to put on the shelf doesn’t need a shelf. A hook might do it. Or could you put the thing into a cupboard you’ve already got? Or maybe the shelf needs to take 10 times the weight you had planned, because more things like it are on their way.

You get the point.

The process of examining your business from the perspective of your clients is crucial to your survival. Marketplaces change and develop quickly, technology outpaces the speed at which we can design and deliver new ideas to market – and it’s only going to get faster.

Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘If at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.’ Maybe he would have enjoyed being around today. Things we think can only happen years down the line, tend to be on us much sooner, and before we know it, our business is disrupted.

Be the disrupter. Let us help you to see it differently. Design Thinking can make the difference, and we will show you how.

Seeing it differently. Future Proofing. It’s what we do.

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