3 Ways Design Thinking Tools Impact Organizational Culture

Design thinking is an iterative, interdisciplinary process that starts with understanding the perspectives, behaviors and motivations of people at the center of the problem you’ve identified. The goal is to ensure you find solutions that meet their needs.

By understanding their needs first, you increase your understanding of the problem, making sure that your solution solves the right problem. Design thinking doesn’t always happen sequentially and can follow any order that makes sense for your organization. Generally, the process can be broken down into three distinct elements:

  • Inspiration – empathizing with people to understand their problems
  • Ideation – identifying potential ways to solve their identified problem
  • Implementation – testing and refining solutions based on outcomes and feedback

Within this process, there are a handful of methods and tools that are employed at each phase. These design thinking tools are often used to help solve problems at the project, interaction, or service level. But there are benefits to incorporating design as a component to impact organizational culture or the underlying norms, values and assumptions of how to behave within an organization.

Based on the findings from Design Thinking and Organizational Culture: A Review and Framework for Future Research by Kimberly Elsbach and Ileana Stigliani, there are three ways in which design thinking tools can influence and support the development of specific organizational cultures.

1. Create a human-centered culture by focusing on the needs of the people you’re trying to serve. Needfinding tools are often used during “Inspiration” to empathize and understand the perspectives of others to identify a problem or pain point that they have. Use these tools (e.g., in-depth contextual interviews, ethnographic observations, and journey mapping) to empathetically engage, learn about experiences, and ultimately contribute to a human-centered culture.

Interviews and observations are methods that require you to “shadow” individuals within the context that they are operating in and uncover insights on their needs and motivations based on an inquiry into their process and observing their behaviors. Journey mapping is an activity that allows teams to visualize the process that a person goes through in order to accomplish their goal, which helps create a common framework of their experience across the team. Ultimately, all of these tools can help teams better understand the people they are serving, leading to a more human-centric focus in an organization.

2. Cultivate a collaborative culture that’s open to ambiguity and risk-taking through ideation. During “Ideation,” teams come up with multiple potential ways to solve the identified problem. Ideation tools (e.g., brainwalking and co-creation) help teams work without an initial clear direction and encourage them to take on projects that have an unknown probability of success.

Brainstorming, or other idea-generation tactics, result in generating several possible solutions. This helps teams move from a culture where perfection is ingrained, to one that is open to ambiguity and taking risks. Co-creation of initial ideas with the people involved in the problem help teams work with customers and stakeholders as collaborators. As a result, teams are less protective of their ideas and foster a culture that’s much more open to change.

3. Champion a learning culture with the willingness to try new things using experimentation and prototyping. In the “Implementation” phase of the design thinking process, teams use rapid prototyping and experimentation to test ideas on a small scale and go back to the drawing board to refine and iterate. Teams are ultimately determining the desirability, feasibility and viability of their solutions at this phase. Developing quick models or testing some parts of a solution with others helps encourage the willingness to try new things since these actions become an opportunity to learn by gathering feedback and making improvements.

While Elsbach and Stigliani found a recursive relationship between the use of design thinking tools and the development of organizational cultures, they’ve also found that an organization’s culture can impede the use of design thinking. Cultures focused on productivity, performance and siloed specialties were less likely to adopt these tools. Organizations with a numbers-driven culture valued productivity over innovation. Performance-based cultures were more formalized and didn’t take these tools seriously. Lastly, siloed teams were less likely to place emphasis on cross-functional collaboration.

Culture change requires active engagement from individuals. The same is true of these design thinking tools, which is why they have the potential to heavily influence an organization. As leaders trying to shape your organization’s culture, employing some of these tools can ensure you’re fostering a collaborative, human-centered culture with an openness to ambiguity, taking risks and experimentation.

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Jenn Noinaj is a social impact strategist, researcher, and designer passionate about using design to solve society’s most pressing challenges. She’s currently leading the Public Interest Technology Field Building portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation where she works on creating solutions to make the public interest technology field more inclusive. Prior to this role, she worked in the federal government at the US Digital Service where she partnered with various agencies to transform digital services across government, building capacity in technology and design and championing a user-centric culture. You can find more about her on her website and can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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