Design Thinking to Survive a Changing World

Thoughts about Empathy, Evolution and Innovation

January 27, 2021
How does a business innovate successfully? One way we look at it is from a Design Thinking perspective.
[Editor’s Note: As of publication, we’re both thrilled and saddened to announce that Nate has departed the Only Co. team for another exciting opportunity. We wish him the best and are so grateful for his contribution to the team, including but certainly not limited to the words he shares here.]

The nature of the world is one of constant change. To run a successful business, teams typically find themselves trying to see into the future, to uncover what might meet the evolving needs of their customers. This means businesses are constantly taking on some form of risk, betting that what they have to offer — and offer in the future — will meet those ever-changing needs. 

As we have seen over the past year, the world can change faster than we had ever even imagined. This naturally creates significant new obstacles for businesses. 

What we’ve observed is that the strongest businesses are the ones that innovate to survive. Whether they currently have a strong capital position, have the right product in the market, or even they just got lucky, at the end of the day, the businesses that make it through need to prepare for the world to change. Without this type of preparation, they may have made it through this time, but there’s no guarantee they will make it through the next.

How does a business innovate successfully? One way we look at it is from a Design Thinking perspective. There are many interpretations of this, but simply put, Design Thinking is a methodology to test and develop products in the most effective way possible. 

Take AirBnb, for example. AirBnb started their multi-million dollar business by setting up airbeds in apartments to learn if customers would be willing to spend money to stay in a stranger’s house (granted that it had appropriate security and safety measures). By testing this hypothesis, they found that customers were more than willing to stay in a stranger’s home — and, of course, the rest is history.

Design Thinking enables your business to identify the minimal viable product (MVP) that can be made or built, and test its actual viability. Without this process, companies and people in times of change can too easily make large assumptions about what their customers need and want. Based on those theories, they build out massive cash- and labor-intensive strategies to provide a solution to the customer. Unfortunately, their solution frequently isn't the right solution, or they quickly discover that some other combination of approaches would have been more ideal. 

Design Thinking is an art. Sure, there are specific processes and modules, and the specific practices may vary among the companies that adopt this approach. Regardless of how it looks for a given organization, design thinking requires an incredibly large amount of creativity and empathy — the ability to put oneself in the shoes of one’s customers and try to eliminate any initial biases one might have. This gives them the ability to see what is important to the customer. 

Then, they have to creatively move into the MVP realm to determine what and how they can offer (it) to their customers. 

One final thought about Design Thinking is that it should be happening regularly within a business. As we have seen with many industries — phones, cars, movies, just to name a few — if a business waits and thinks they are insulated from the change they are wrong (just look at Blockbuster).

So what am I recommending? Embrace at least these initial aspects of a Design Thinking perspective — even if it's just slow at first. It will enable you to take yourself out of the box you’re in and see things for what they are. You may discover some of the best ideas you haven’t thought of through empathy for those you serve. And the evolution it will foster will equip you to weather the next big change. 

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