Rose Burt By Rose Burt • January 20, 2016

3 Steps to Success with Design Thinking

Design thinking is a great process for solving big problems, especially in a quick moving operation, where the stakes are high and the ability to be nimble and smart with your time is crucial. Design thinking — just like lean methodology, the engineering design process, and the scientific method — cycles through research, ideation, prototyping, testing, and iteration, and has applications in any domain.

But design thinking is more than just a way to creatively approach a problem  it takes commitment and consistency to make it work. Here are the three most critical steps to success for getting your team started with design thinking:

1. Start every project with clearly defined goals and success criteria.

At a startup, there is a lot of pressure to deliver a finished product as soon as possible. It can be tempting to dig into a project as soon as you have a general idea of what is needed, but this approach is often wasteful and frustrating. Taking the time at the beginning of every project, big or small, to clearly articulate the goals and success criteria will help you and your team spend time on delivering your best work, and minimize time spent on misunderstood targets. It can feel like this step slows down your process, but in the end this will actually shorten your total time to success, and cut out frustrating mis-steps and lost time that you really can't afford.

2. Brainstorms are most effective in a clearly scoped context.

Whiteboard sessions, mind-mapping, and round-robin share-outs are all different formats for brainstorming. Brainstorms are a great strategy, most typically reserved for use at the beginning of a project, or when the path forward isn't clear. They can be incredibly productive, but they can also become a quagmire. It's easy for your team to get going in a brainstorming session that wanders animatedly across a variety of fantastical futures of questionable relevance to the issue at hand, leaving you with a lot of time spent but no clear action items. Brainstorms should absolutely be open ended, with great attention to the 'yes and' rule, but that doesn't mean that a brainstorm should have infinite scope. It's easy to get lost in a tangent or wild speculative diversion if your brainstorming session doesn't have a clear goal. Figure out what problem you're trying to solve - and stick to that problem. Write it down. Define it clearly for everyone involved. Any fantastic or crazy idea is fair game, as long as it relates to the question your brainstorm is working to solve.

3. Prototype and iterate (aka test early, test often).

It can be easy sometimes to get caught feeling like your solution isn't ready yet - and to keep piling hours into the project, hidden from the world, working away at getting it closer to perfection. The problem with this approach is that it's not possible to create a perfect solution on the first pass. You need to test your project to know how well it meets your success criteria, and learn how you can improve it. In design thinking, as in lean methodology and software usability best practices, it's crucial to create an MVP, then test and iterate. The great thing about this style of process is that by testing early and often, you're minimizing the lost time spent on solutions that don't work, and maximizing your opportunity to incrementally improve your solution until it's truly awesome.

With these three guiding principles in hand, and with the knowledge that like any new process or tool you use, getting your team involved from the start and invested in the value to come, you'll be set up for success to make design thinking part of your process for solving problems. And even more importantly, you'll reach new, innovative solutions that will set you above and beyond the rest. 


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