What is design thinking, and why does it spur innovation?

Why we all need to become "T-shaped" thinkers, according to IDEO CEO Tim Brown

Image via Canva
Image via Canva

In your opinion, what is the most innovative company in the world?

Odds are, the company that popped into your mind has either worked with or been influenced by the design firm IDEO, which is known for its innovation method that places the human experience at the center of every problem.

IDEO’s CEO, a designer named Tim Brown whose works are at the MoMA and the Design Museum in London, famously said that “the MFA is the new MBA,” in that creativity is now the most relevant skill in business because it drives innovation. 

Innovation requires what Brown calls “T-shaped” people, or people who are design thinkers.

Simply put, design thinking is a method of innovation that places the human experience at the center of the problem, and starts without an end in mind so a problem can be explored without judgment, bias and blind spots that tend to plague a lot of traditional approaches used in business.

Our education system typically churns out graduates who are primed to be individual contributors, where they have a specific set of skills to do a job that doesn’t require much collaboration. These people are I-shaped, meaning their skills are vertical or narrow and can get deeper, but aren’t broadly applicable outside of their area.

A T-shaped design thinker has another characteristic beyond the skill depth of a typical I-shaped person. The horizontal element of the T means this person can collaborate across disciplines and connect dots. They can imagine a problem from someone else’s perspective. They’re curious, and get excited to learn what other people know. They’re active listeners to who build on other people’s ideas instead of trying to compete with them.

And, most importantly, they care about other humans and put the human experience at the center of every challenge. 

Anyone can become a T-shaped design thinker, according to Brown, with a few simple shifts:

Develop social and emotional skills like empathy, listening, and communication. These skills make us more open to people and ideas that can stimulate creativity. Brown credits Stanford’s with effectively teaching these skills to business-minded students and feeding IDEO with innovative thinkers who can collaborate.

Open your mind to all possibilities, especially those outside your realm of experience. We tend to start with the end in mind, trying to apply something that worked in a different context to the problem at hand. (What’s that old saying about how every problem is a nail if you have a hammer?) Instead of starting with the end in mind, listen with an open mind to the humans at the center of the problem, and allow the observations to guide you.

Get comfortable prototyping and iterating with others. We’re trained to work in silos and present fully baked solutions, but this limits creativity. Engage others by sharing drafts, messy mock-ups and in-progress ideas. It allows more brains to participate in the creative process, and more meaningful discussion about how a potential solution will affect or enhance the human experience. 

Today, think about yourself as a team member, and identify one of the three simple shifts above that you can start applying at work now to become more “T-shaped” and more creative and effective at designing experiences for the humans who benefit from what you do on the job.

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