Design Thinking for Competitive Advantage

Design Thinking

Times have changed – so too customer requirements, tastes, our lifestyles and how we are all communicating…  As Innovators, we constantly seek out the next big idea, technology or service that promises to make both our ideas and people indispensable.  Staying current means our organizations must move with change.  

While no one person can predict the future, Design Thinking goes a long way towards providing us with a map.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking (DT) is a repeatable, proven problem-solving, value-creating protocol that any profession, organisation or business can use to achieve big results. 

Designer sensibility and methods applied to systems, procedures, protocols and customer/user experience. With DT, a cross-functional blend of inter-disciplinary teams solves complex problems.   Value-adding solution-focused methods.  Pooling, profiting from different perspectives, ramping up visibility and investigating what’s required for real team or customer-centricity.  All to arrive at, define, isolate and fix those major problem/s. 

An adaptive framework, extremely useful in tackling complex problems; ill-defined, wicked or unknown.  New and improved solutions to your problems at hand.  Combining creative/critical thinking to allow ideas and information to be better organised – for sound decisions made on your projects; knowledge and diversity-of-thought over some of the shortest timelines.   

Design Thinking aims at finding solutions (for the many!) not only focusing on a problem. Draws on research, logic, imagination, intuition and systemic reasoning to explore possibilities of what could be ( desired outcomes to benefit end-users;  internal teams, customers, other stakeholders.)   

Fostering far deeper, stronger collaboration across teams.  A very much art-meets-science approach to empower  people’s thinking and ideas – unleash their inner curiosities (…which goes for even the most hardened, traditional thinkers too.) 

Continuously Redesign Your Business

Well past the time for fresh thinking, for organisations to adopt different information and entirely new structures, systems for the human future of work.   Now it is round two – yet another shift in the way we work, and need for us to restructure our busineses, only this time it is machines transforming brands, economies, industries and societies

 Design-thinking businesses stand head & shoulders above the rest….why?  For their willingness to engage in the continuous redesign of their businesses. 

McKinsey recently outlined top-level trends dramatically changing how workplaces, organisations and teams are working.   

Evolving quickly to Environments  Demand patterns of stakeholders are altering rapidly, the pressing needs of teams, customers, partners, policymakers and regulators, along with growth demand, makes acquisitions /restructuring necessary. Take action if you need help to accommodate altering priorities.

Accelerated digitization, democratisation of information  Companies are engaging heavily in multi-directional communications, working in complex collaboration scenarios (increased volume, distribution, transparency required between colleagues, internal teams, customers and partners.)

Introducing disruptive technologies  Commoditisation of established businesses – where business is replaced or at least challenged due to digitization, advancement, or innovative use  of new models and of course, automation:  Machine Learning, IoT, Robotics etc skewing workplaces and our world.

Brand new war for talent.  Heightened knowledge is required and fast.  Design mindsets, creative empowerment, learning-based tasks and the revisiting the employer profile: as it is a drawcard to your brand.  Distinctive value propositions EVP and CVP  are required to acquire, engage, retain the best tech talent.

Design Thinking Businesses Win (Competitive Advantage)

Virtually impossible for organisations to be truly successful unless their companies are disrupting others and markets.  

Everyone understands all the benefits to innovation but being tasked with the job of actually doing it, a whole different thing entirely.  At the very least, every single company has to be morphing and improving systems and making human elements a priority.

Scale of impact has led to traditional companies in ecosystems to ask “how can we/do we adapt fast; move as quickly as a nimble start-up?”  Get beyond solution development to redesigning themselves, and implementing enterprise-wide operating models based on similar principles.   

Design Thinking matches needs of people (supported by technology) underpinned by viable business strategy;  turns these into real customer value and market opportunities.

Less concern with the necessary – focused disciplines on the contingent (…not how things are, but how they can be!?)  

Design Thinking Agile The Higher Mix

Still a firm endeavour to create necessary advances in both efficiency and innovation (most potent combination for a competitive edge.)   

People-centered’ culture, team networks operate in rapid learning cycles, for faster decisions made, in different working structures, enabled by technology – are the hallmarks of Design Thinker organisations.   The common thread here is purpose. 

Purpose and direction underpinning speedy co-creation; keeping our people heading in the right direction to derive more value to the widest range of stakeholders – as  they produce new strategybrands or products, or revitalised marketing?

With design thinkers in hubs, collaborating; businesses invest heavily, valuable resources into ideation, co-creation, and experimentation that hopefully (!) will arrive at innovations people will love.  Smart execs ask themselves this:  how successful are we really in making that leap from isolated agile projects to full-scale transformation of the business?  Is this working?  Where’s the impact? The proof?   

For innovation to succeed – first innovation leaders, key managers and collaborators must:

  • Recognise there’s no quick fix – innovation is a process; 
  • They must stop executing the innovation process backward/ refrain from cobbling together incompatible innovation tools and methods;
  • Understand that a budget, time and outside expertise is required to support teams and correctly execute DT processes; 
  • Warm up to change:  using data and research you have – note:  this may well eventually alter your operating model and methods. 

Reshaping quickly involves overcoming all difficulties associated with achieving “nimbleness” – which in itself is made more complex by human elements.  Anyone’s view of the world (workplace) tends to endure typically, until such time as they can’t explain new evidence or make sense of situations:  then we see a paradigm shift.   

Nowadays, there are untold numbers of new creative approaches to problem-solving.   With companies on their journies to alter learning inside the business; thinking like designers and applying next gen change principles into workplaces, at the same time.   

All this starts and ends with people. 

Design Thinking is personal in nature; relative to people’s needs and challenges.  That makes it a valuable methodology for leveraging empathy from people.  Sense-making; bringing forward the right mindsets to inspire development of emotionally/  functionally valuable human experiences and workforces.   

But every waking minute, companies are consumed with task overflow.  With fighting imperfect organisational structures and what falls out of this very often is inaction by leaders.  Most busy managers don’t cope well with exploding innovation agendas and environments.  We hear never enough time” to clear our thoughts or obsess over intricacies of Cx (customer experience). 

But without it, organisations get lost; they become ripe for chaos, complexity, inefficiencies – often suffer declining market share as a result.   And we aren’t seeing too many new pathways either.   Example; the entire performance evaluation model is (was) broken.  Certainly redundant, yielded many of the wrong answers and isn’t adequately coping now for the new breed of talent we have on the deck; they operate entirely differently.  

New Ways of Working

So you know,  DT is a method for meeting people’s needs – to give them voice to produce a solution which is technologically feasible and strategically viable.   Human-centered design aims to drive customer/team focus deeper inside organisations.  

Less about the detailed elaboration of ideas – more about extensive experimentation.  Big draw-card ideas which can improve people’s quality of life (workplaces, product use; at home and across the planet.)

But let’s be a bit cautionary here.  End-users might well provide insights that are tangible (coupled with stats, market research) but what you are really after is a far more thorough understanding of people and their problem/s.   

That’s the key driver to organisational change and effectiveness; central to any business building new, compelling experiences not just for customers, equally for their own internal teams too. 

Customer-Led Innovation

DT has already changed the entire way we think about, and do work.

With excellent frameworks (parameters, values and goals) for customer-led innovation into organisations but just like anything in life, it all comes down to the execution.   

Just how well your organization employs its methods and people’s skills used on projects and approaches (to various design activities) and host of other requirements to consider.  

Anything but concrete or inflexible in its approach, Design Thinking is a thrilling ride, esp. at the beginning.   No-one ever really knows exactly where it will take us.  What we can be sure of is this – the destination promises to be far more innovative and relevant. 

                  Watch Lena Ross’ 3 min video on Agile Change.

Co-Created Change: Problem-Seek/Solve with your own People

Getting a grip on human needs and interactions; re-framing existing problems in human-centric ways for plethora of ideas brainstormed and quickly followed up with hands-on prototyping, testing, and adoption.  Under all this, Design Thinking mandate which respects the value to ‘thinking’. 

However, design thinkers must set aside their own assumptions about a product, customer or world, in order to gain necessary insights into user needs.  So opportunities will open up to your team. They can assimilate directly into the processes that govern their own company.  Their inputs used to help overcome organisational inertia or resistance to positive change.

Design Thinking The Higher Mix

No surprises then, occasionally internal teams become so focused on generating ideas (often somewhat self-serving to their own interests or situations.) Where the customer needs become almost secondary, sometimes even absent. 

Where decisions made on important situations/people in functional isolation, (underline those two words!) which unknowingly results in fragmented decision-making – and customers who are feeling the pain…and long before anyone internally realizes they do.   

Shaping Culture is where its at.. And Leaders too

We aren’t advocating organizations ditch their planning or existing strategic priorities.  Rolling out any form of business strategy requires rigour. Good design work will simply provide a platform for stronger focus, informing criteria for evaluation of competing ideas, and speedy ability to frame/re-frame problems on the ground faster.   

Moving through any transformation requires agreement from leaders and their alignment to both the aspirations (…and value) of  the exercise. 

Leaders must inspire, support and empower teams and they had better get good at this, fast.   

Willingness and openness to share knowledge, being up for serious collaboration between depts. Dedicating proper amounts of time to thinking through the style of work being done inside it, and for the customers outside of the business too. 

What’s being done to guarantee creativity and innovation are flourishing?  Is the business simplifying; cutting through all that red tape?  Solving the right problems? How are measuring merit?  Redirecting effort in the best direction for viable solutions? Altering learning in your business? 

Extends to what organisations are doing, investing in for the right talent? 

Are we giving them necessary time for testing, encouraging fast failure with business systems in support?  What of the intrinsic skills we need to  become a more successful organization?  Do we even know what those skills are?  Just where will we find these talented people who are to fuel company growth? 

If we’re all truly honest about those: primarily means our business strategy must change. To reposition for a different direction/markets, and have our people, company narratives, and marketing support that.

Design Thinking Comes With Its Own Set Of Unique Challenges

Design Thinking isn’t always easy to adopt.  Especially in relation to organisational change (regardless of the change framework, always be the struggles to shoulder) ….this we know, from our many years of dealing in transformational change.

Forget trying to design “end state” in granular detail.  Given the depth and breadth of the transformation, necessary to be aligned high level (as to the aspirations, value and plausible plans to achieve.)   

Will work for all types of organizations – big and small.  Largest challenges tend to arise during implementation and more so, for established companies who are themselves typically wound up with stringent processes and systems.  Nonetheless, benefits certainly outweigh the process of cutting through all the red tape.   

That is what Design Thinking does – simplify. 

Important for any organisation’s ability to adapt, innovate and learn rapidly. Taking their problem/s, chunking them down and enabling teams to drill down on core issue/s quickly, and clearly piece together critical aspects for far stronger solution.   

Whatever that solution looks like – still same underlying principles: iterative development, deep cross-functional team collaboration, frequent releases, laser focus on the customer and our own teams. 

Value Drivers used through Transformation

Limiting agile to pilots, i.e. a smaller part of the organization may well be a “safe” option and initially might see a pilot successful but will only have restricted impact (to several teams or groups of technologists). Possibly prevent exec teams from fully grasping the far-reaching impact and strategic value to a far broader agile transformation. 

Last thing your company wants/needs is a series of pilots happening – before they are eventually killed off because they either do arrive with outcomes or there’s need to reallocate the funding for new initiatives arising instead. 

Also, nothing worse than absence of alignment – where companies gear up to adopt DT (customer focus, experimentation, empowered teams) only to end up creating a cacophony of stresses for your leaders or there are totally disparate approaches happening so all thothers just dig in, and push-back, trying to maintain the status quo.

Drivers include the guided design of the operating model to ensuring value is delivered and Metrics, designed to monitor value-capture during execution.   Failing in these two areas constrains the impact that your transformation will have.   

To overcome limits to impact of your transformation – avoid teams across different parts of the organisation applying agile to varying degrees and flavours;  just will lead to significant increases in overheads, and people struggling to manage this through states, and across teams. Where they spend very little time really considering (tracking) the value their effort/s actually delivered. 

Beyond Proof of Concept to Proof of Value 

Enterprise-wide transformation has become the number one priority for any organisation. 

To drive this real impact, execs have to take more interest, understand, adopt, and implement key changes to business practices in order to support a more agile, technology-driven organisation. 

Any bottom-up change, in the way of working at team level, will change not only the way executive levels operate; it will have a profound impact on people / and a disproportionate influence on the culture of your organisation too.

As you construct your recipe for success, first question to ask is  ‘Just how much are we willing to give up?’

Ambitous transformation starts with breaking leaders out of working inside the paradigm of  ‘old’  culture (hesitation to empower teams, needing all this detail on their workings or the design of end-products, demanding project-management status reports weekly). 

In other words, leaders empowering, minimising red tape and bureaucracy – creating truly cross-functional, empowered high calibre teams, with experience to drive the innovation agenda.  


Jo Woodfield is a Moderator at the upcoming HR SUMMIT in Perth, Australia on 17 June 2019.     

Contact her at

About the Author Jo Woodfield

Jo is the founder and owner of The Higher Mix.A respected Organisational branding, and Employer Branding expert, she is consulting on national and international brand programs, for vast array of mining, engineering, retail and government clients.Jo leads The Higher Mix team of strategic management consultants, agile digital practitioners and research analysts as they assist companies to improve the brand, its position, marketing (customer engagement and channels), employer brands, lean change programs, culture and leaders.Acclaimed keynote speaker on topics of Branding (Company, Employer, Personal, Product Branding) along with Culture - Jo has been invited guest panellist and/or speaker at over 150 domestic national events and conferences across Australia.

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