How To Innovate Using Design Thinking

Organizations are constantly on the look out for ways to grow and stay ahead of the competition. The ones that succeed will have fostered a culture of innovation where creativity and disruptive thinking can thrive. A recent poll by of over 6,000 professionals in the MENA region revealed that 89% believe creative thinking is important for driving social and economic growth, with 61.8% confirming that innovation has led to improved financial performance.

So how can organizations unlock the creative potential of their people and tap into unexplored growth opportunities?

A great place to start is with the next generation of leaders, the ones who are fast-filling the lower ranks and who will play a pivotal future role of leading in a complex, diverse and dynamic business landscape. These “millennials” now represent almost one third of the global population and will dominate the workforce over the next forty years and beyond.

From a training perspective, what makes this millennial generation unique is their distinctive learning style. Typically they’re able to quickly master any new digital technology and expect to be able to access learning immediately, on-demand and in bite-sized chunks that cater to their very short attention spans. They are highly motivated, full of energy and drive and are looking for purpose and meaning in their roles. They want to feel involved and that they’re adding value. They actively seek feedback and appreciate one-to-one interactions to explore new ways of growing and developing themselves. They like to learn from doing, sharing and collaborating and have an incredible ability to synthesize information quickly from a broad range of resources and networks.

To truly engage this group, Training and L&D teams will need to innovate the way they are designing and delivering their learning solutions.

One innovation methodology that is well suited for this challenge is “Design Thinking,” a five stage process that was originally used by architects and urban planners before it was adapted for the business world by David Kelley, founder of IDEO, in 1991. Design Thinking puts the user at the heart of the innovation process, involving them throughout the developmental stages. It’s based on the principle that through high levels of interaction, observation, ideation, prototyping, experimenting and refining, it’s possible to discover unmet needs and wants and shape new solutions that bridge that elusive gap between desirability, feasibility and viability.

So how can Design Thinking be used to develop high impact learning solutions that will engage, challenge and inspire the next generation of leaders?

Stage 1: Empathy

The first stage is all about developing a deep understanding of your user, not from data and research reports, but by engaging with them directly. For example, interviewing your millennial learner to explore their learning style, what they want to learn, what methods work for them and which ones don’t. Observing them in action, watching them navigate around your training portal, identifying what formats work best for them and what’s missing in your current portfolio. Seeing how they interact with your current training materials and your current training content. By spending this quality time with them you’ll learn an enormous amount about how they think and feel, and uncover needs that they may, or even may not, be aware of.

Stage 2: Define

Synthesizing all the insights gained from directly observing and interacting with your millennial learners will enable you to really focus your

definition of what your learning interventions need to achieve to prepare them as future leaders. For example, knowing that they value hands-on learning that is on-demand and available in bite sized chunks with strong individual support, your design statement could simply be “find it, understand it, apply it, benefit from it – anytime, anywhere.” This definition allows you to focus and frame the challenge, giving clear guidelines for brainstorming and evaluating ideas.

Stage 3: Ideate

Only now are we ready to move into idea generation. This is where we move beyond the obvious solutions and diverge our thinking to explore a wide range of possible concepts. Using brainstorming techniques we can take our definition and expand on ways all the different ways this could be achieved. From the example above, ways to “find it” could include concepts like “ask Siri,” “dial a coach,” and a type of collective “wikiHow.” At this stage it’s important to harness your team’s strengths, knowledge and collective perspective to help uncover unexpected routes of possibility.

Stage 4: Prototype

This stage is often skipped in the development of training programs. But it is the secret sauce of the Design Thinking approach because it reinforces the “think big, act small, fail fast and learn rapidly” approach to innovation. With prototyping you can create rough mock-ups of your best ideas and share these initial concepts with a few millennial learners. For example, you could mock-up a basic learning app that uses short video clips, quizzes, user forums and a collective blog. By carefully watching how your user interacts with it you’ll see what works well, what “wows” and what flops.

Stage 5: Test

Taking what you’ve learnt in the prototyping stage you can easily refine your best ideas into concepts that can be taken to the testing stage. Sharing these ideas with a larger user group of millennial learners will reveal valuable insights that will help you fine-tune your final concept. For example, in your basic learning app, you may discover that the videos are too long, that millennials prefer games to test their learning rather than simple quizzes, and that they are highly motivated by leaderboards and collecting points to redeem in their favorite stores. If some of your concepts aren’t landing, this is never a negative. Rather it’s better you discovered this sooner rather than later. This stage helps you refine your concept and get it ready to take out into the wider world.

By putting the millennial at the center of the innovation process and using the five stage Design Thinking approach, Training and L&D are well positioned to create high impact learning interventions that truly engage the next generation of leaders. In doing so, not only will they become catalysts for creating an innovation culture, they’ll also future-proof their leadership talent.

Gabriella Goddard is an Executive Coach and Leadership Development facilitator specializing in innovation and creative thinking. She has over 12 years experience working with leaders and senior managers within global multinational organizations in the EMEA region. She is a published author and the creator of the brainsparker app, one of the top iPhone/iPad apps for creative thinking.