Stop Hurting Yourself and Others - Design Thinking in Day-To-Day Office Work

Peter Mulford
December, 2011

By Peter Mulford

Peter Mulford Photo

She was a C-suite executive at a $40B firm, and she wasn’t having any.

“Oh yeah, I have some ‘customer feedback’ you can give to your management consulting clients,” she snipped in answer to my question, arms folded. “All they do is talk and talk without saying a thing. Tell them to cut out the jargon and give me something that’s worth my <explicative> time.”

I dutifully took out a notepad. From there the executive went on to express, in colorful detail, a point of view that I’ve heard repeated by executives and front-line managers alike: the products, services, and ideas presented to them by both internal managers and external consultants aren’t designed to fit the needs of the people who are meant to use them. In short, people don’t employ thoughtful Design Thinking. And the result is frustration, confusion, and a waste of time and money.

What is this? Ever since the rise of Apple, the notion of Design Thinking in consumer products has become mainstream and well understood—it is the process by which the needs and wants of end users drive each stage of a product’s development. When applied to strategy execution, design thinking is a capability that gets you better execution by accelerating interpretation and understanding. In short, when our work is intended to be used by other humans, Design Thinking can be applied to almost anything we do or create. And we’d all be the better off if we did it.

So, here are three essential tenets of Design Thinking that are relevant to your day-to-day work--in any job, at any level, anywhere.

1) The design of anything you produce should serve the needs of the people who will use it.

This must seem an obvious truth, at first. But then ask yourself:

  1. How often have I paused before a glass doorway in a strange place, unsure of where to push, pull or slide?
  2. How often have I paused before the “new” coffee machine in the office pantry, unsure of which way to insert the coffee “module”?
  3. How often have I paused before a colleague’s PowerPoint slide, wondering—What the--?!
  4. And, finally— how often have I considered the needs of my end user when designing my:
    • Meeting agenda?
    • Power-point slides?
    • Handouts?
    • Email?

I will hazard, diplomatically, that the answer to this last question is “not as often as I should.” This matters because the things you produce on a regular basis—meeting agendas, emails, memos, guidelines—are intended to be used by people. Therefore, the needs and requirements of those people should influence your design.

Why bother? Because…

2) Exceptional design saves time and money by accelerating interpretation and understanding, both leading to better strategy execution.

Fact: the business world continually vomits up processes, procedures, and proposals that are frustrating to use and understand. They are frustrating because they are poorly designed—providing no clues, unclear clues, and even false clues—and interfere with people’s natural process of engagement, interpretation and understanding. The outcomes of poor design are teams filled with angst, proposals that receive no purchase, and meetings that lead either to misunderstanding and misalignment, or simply to other meetings. This all results in waste that could have been avoided by good design to begin with.

So, now what? Applying Design Thinking to everything you do means that you start every effort with a question, which is our third and final tenet:

3) When designing something to be used by others, start by answering “What am I trying to cause andfor whom?”

Notice that this question has two different but inter-related parts. “What am I trying to cause?” is the more familiar query—this forces you to clearly articulate clearly your objective. Answering “for whom?” should cause you to consider the people you intend to influence, affect, or serve as you design whatever you are producing—be it a meeting agenda, or a 360 evaluation summary. In short, understanding the needs and wants of the “Whom” provides you the opportunity to be more thoughtful and successful in the design of “What” you are trying to cause.

And with that, you are on your way to applying Design Thinking in everyday work. In doing so, you’ll produce and present things that will serve the needs of the people intended to use them. You’ll reduce the waste from errors of misinterpretation and the frustration that comes with misunderstanding, and in turn, you’ll attain a capability that accelerates execution. At a minimum, what you produce will likely be worth an executive’s <explicative> time.

To learn more about the BTS Strategy Execution Framework, Execution=Alignment, Mindset, Capability (E=AMC), click here.

About the Author: Peter Mulford is an Executive Vice President and the Head of the Strategic Alignment & Business Acumen Practice at BTS.

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