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Designing for Disruption

Faced with the choice of transformation or disruption, many market-leading companies are adapting a creative approach long practiced by designers. Design thinking is a work methodology that can transform businesses into customer-obsessed innovators. But there are more and less successful ways of doing it.

Faced with the choice of transformation or disruption, many market-leading companies are adapting a creative approach long practiced by designers. Design thinking is a work methodology that can transform businesses into customer-obsessed innovators. But there are more and less successful ways of doing it.

Designing for Disruption
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Established organizations face an existential dilemma today: How can they compete in a business landscape reshaped by technological advances and digital platforms? Customer experience has become nearly as important as the actual product—a reality that many startups use to their advantage. The challenge for established companies is to find a way to disrupt their practices from within before outside forces intervene.  

Innovation = Creativity x Execution

As a testament to the rapidly evolving business environment, a 2016 survey by KPMG and Forbes Insights1 found that two-thirds of chief executives expected the next three years to be more critical to their industries than the previous 50.

The innovation that will help companies keep up with the current pace of change is a result of both creativity and execution. In fact, you could say that innovation equals creativity multiplied by execution. Traditional companies are good at the execution side of that equation—the efficient development and distribution of products or services—but less skilled at the creativity element.

That’s where design thinking comes in. It’s a methodology that formalizes the creative process in an organization so teams can better understand customer pain points and execute on innovation opportunities. Design thinking helps companies develop a critical competitive differentiator in the age of digital disruption: a more desirable customer experience.

Unlike other methodologies, design thinking begins with empathy. By using tools like mapping user journeys and developing customer personas, organizations can better understand their customer and the problems that need solving. This is the key: Defining the right problem before jumping in to brainstorm solutions. A solution that’s super creative, on budget and on time is meaningless if it misses the central issue—so it’s essential to take the time to find the right problem at the outset.  

From there, teams can ideate on solutions and develop prototypes for customer testing. The idea is to get to the prototyping phase quickly so that if it fails, it fails early and cheaply, before significant resources have been spent on an idea that doesn’t resonate with customers. Once a solution has been battle tested by multiple iterations of prototyping and testing, then an organization can move on to implementation with confidence.

Every company needs to do this at a pace that can keep up with rapid technological change and accompanying shifts in customer needs and desires. Technology can help deliver a great user experience because it allows an organization to extend its reach and find efficiencies, but it’s the vehicle that enables innovation rather than the innovation itself. True innovation starts with human-centered research.  

Innovation Readiness2

Before design thinking can even be brought into a company, leaders need to acknowledge that what brought success in the past won’t necessarily bring success in the long term. It’s a difficult change of mindset, but a critical one for companies to successfully transform into nimble, creative and customer-centric entities.

Along their innovation journey, most companies go through four basic stages:

1.  The lonely soldier: The first stage is when a senior executive learns about design thinking and then picks one person to implement the transformation process throughout the organization.

2.  Success in silos: Rather than trying to transform the entire organization at once, it’s then a matter of starting small by tackling a few pilot projects that have the potential to deliver meaningful business results.

3.  The push-pull shift: The crucial tipping point is when the pilot programs incite enough interest and excitement among customers that other groups within the organization want to pull the process into their own departments.

4.  Scale up: It’s only at that point—when teams are actively seeking out design thinking techniques for their workflows—that leadership can roll out the methodology globally. That requires changes to work environments to make fast-paced creative thinking happen, as well as a specific hiring strategy of getting more diverse thought into the room. Ultimately, it’s about transforming a company’s mindset and culture.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Design Thinking

For organizations considering design thinking, there are some best practices to follow: 


1. US CEO Outlook 2016, KPMG and Forbes Insights.

2. Joint work with Professor Baba Shiv of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Janaki Kumar of SAP.

3. Kumar, Janaki. “Innovation is a journey, not a destination.” SAP Design, February 14, 2017.


TechTrends Anish Bhimani