To manage change, organizations need a human focus. Design thinking can help.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world, our economies are facing challenges we never thought possible. Social distancing and mandatory shut-downs are putting unprecedented strains on businesses, forcing organizations and individuals to find new ways to navigate the uncertainty. Traditional approaches aren’t working. We need novel solutions, and design thinking can help us find them.

If you’re surprised by this suggestion, it may be because you’re unsure of what it really means. Despite the name, design thinking is not exclusively for designers. It’s not even restricted to design. Rather, it’s an approach that encourages organizations (from small teams to large corporations) to explore solutions based on the needs of their end users, leading to innovative thinking that never loses sight of the lives it’s meant to improve.

The truth about design thinking

Design thinking is the conception of innovative ideas, products, experiences, and services to improve the lives of the end users, whether they’re customers, company stakeholders, or employees. The process encourages idea generation by bringing together people from different teams, from across an organization, to collaborate. A diverse group has greater perspective and experience, and is more likely to propose solutions that benefit everyone and have a greater awareness of where change is needed and how new accomplishments can be made.

Unlike traditional problem solving, which employs convergent thinking (choosing the best solution from available choices), design thinking employs divergent thinking (innovating choices in an integrated and holistic manner). Divergent thinking encourages the creation of new choices, and the application of those choices to business challenges.

This is particularly important now, a moment that appears to be immune to traditional economic stimulus. From manufacturing to distribution to retail, all aspects of supply chains are being negatively impacted by COVID-19. Businesses need new ways to stay active while ensuring the safety of their employees, clients, and customers.

With design thinking, as with other business processes, there is a method to reach a goal. The approach identifies challenges, brainstorms possible solutions, and then experiments until the “right” solution for an organization is discovered.

But design thinking differs from other business processes in that it is people-centric. At its core, design thinking is a human approach to both digital transformation and business needs. “What does the human need?” This is the central question.

As a human approach, design thinking engages everyone in an organization. It is not reserved for an elite group, but rather for an entire organization’s workforce. When you get a group of people working together, trying to solve the same problem, they will naturally come up with different angles and approaches. That “magic” of diversity sparks innovation.

Design thinking sessions are intended to be places where creativity and innovation can be expressed and flow freely, and where exploration can take place without fear of failure. This might not be a comfortable way of working for those who have never done it. Most people are afraid to think outside the box, much less share that thinking. But design thinking promotes ideation through collaborative sessions in which people add to ideas rather than tear them down, encouraging trust and cooperation throughout the organization. This is where organizational change management comes in.

Organizational change management (OCM)

Increasing collaboration and innovation, while lessening the fear of adoption from all sectors of an organization, is the fundamental intention of OCM. Creating and transforming business models and cultures isn’t a one-time event; it must become part of a company’s culture, part of their ongoing effort to be more adaptive by becoming more human-centric.

Why “human-centric”? Because employees are humans, and so are customers. Identifying the human element in any decision will help align it with the drives of the people it’s meant to serve. If a business is looking to inspire new customers, their decisions need to be human-centric as it relates to their customers: What are their motivations? needs? concerns? How does the proposed solution address these points? If the organization is looking to inspire collaboration among employees and teams, they need to be human-centric in relation to their employees, addressing their motivations, needs, and concerns.

People at all levels need to know their input is valuable for helping drive innovation throughout the organization. This encourages participants to engage business challenges and feel responsible for addressing them. It also shows that changes are not only needed, but welcomed.

One of the most vital components of organizational change management is storytelling. That might sound far-fetched, but storytelling encourages empathy within organizations for end users by bringing to life the users’ journeys. Empathizing with the users’ journeys helps teams think, not of themselves but of their customers and their employees.

Consider the user journey for a typical retail customer. How has that story changed under the current circumstances? What are their pain points as a result? For one, physical stores may be closed, so traffic may be digital, through websites, which might be less personal or hard to navigate. There are also financial concerns: Are people spending money differently now? Have their preferences changed? Trying to relive the experiences of the end user highlights a range of challenges and helps organizations strategize comprehensive solutions, rather than shooting in the dark.

However, telling stories isn’t enough. OCM must inspire trust and involvement in the design thinking process, to support action through it. As a committed partner to design thinking, storytelling, and visualization, OCM “shows” the organizational change by relating it to user personas and departments. It creates an environment of trust and creativity to afford the space for change by showing how it affects real change for real people in the end.

Organizational change management works to help all stakeholders discover, create, and communicate a shared vision. This vision can be the inspiration to align business units and other areas that have in the past experienced friction due to siloed processes. That vision can then be enhanced and explored by stakeholders, employees, and even customers. And that’s where the partnership between organizational change management and design thinking comes in.

The partnership: Design thinking and organizational change management

How can an organization begin to embrace design thinking through the lens of change management? Design thinking and OCM both have a common, strategic starting point: Begin with the future vision in mind. This philosophy focuses not on the technology, but on how that technology enables user adoption and a vision of the future. Going back to the retail example, a business might consider incorporating virtual reality into their e-commerce—not because the technology is emerging, but because it allows the company to engage with their customers remotely and generate interest around a new experience.

To kick off this process, an organization should coordinate a virtual OCM-centric design thinking workshop. This is a time for people from across the organization to come together with others not like themselves to problem-solve, ideate, and ultimately create solutions reflecting the new way of being for the organization. The key to success is to ensure collaboration and brainstorming are properly facilitated and structured to ensure innovative ideas grow and expand. This can lead to a better understanding of the human side of change, improved adoption of changes, the breakdown of silos and other organizational barriers, and ultimately the development of a strategic plan.

Design thinking combined with change management might also include cutting-edge customer engagement and training, to better assist teams in understanding the next best step and how to apply this step to engage key resources and requirements throughout a project. Training multiplies the strategic value of design thinking by encouraging participants to utilize their new skills in real-world examples.

Now more than ever, businesses must be resilient. They need to be unified and strategic, and they need to act fast. OCM helps stakeholders visualize how to navigate uncertainty. Design thinking accelerates digital and organizational transformation. With a focus on people, movement, participation, and culture shifts, OCM lays the groundwork for successful design thinking, and helps businesses discover ways to drive customer value, employee satisfaction, and market opportunity.