The Promise of Design Thinking

“The desire to bring new ways of thinking into government is like an insurgency,” said Joshua Marcuse, Senior Advisory for Policy Innovation at DoD. One of those ways of thinking is design thinking, also called human-centered design (HCD).

To learn more about design thinking, we spoke with Zvika Krieger, Director of the Strategy Lab at the State Department, and Stephanie Wade, Director of the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management. They explained what it is and why it’s increasingly entering government strategies.

Design Thinking Defined

So what is design thinking? Krieger offered a definition: “Design thinking is taking the tools from the world of design, applying them to complex challenges and helping you come up with innovative solutions.”

Wade elaborated. “It’s changing the way [people] see the world – how it works and what we expect from it,” she said.

While these definitions may make design thinking seem like an intangible idea, Krieger said that’s not the case. “It’s a concrete, linear, replicable way to drive innovation.”

While there are various methodologies for executing design thinking, there are five components or steps that are integral to every model. They include:

  1. Empathize: Determine whose needs you are trying to meet. Then, connect with those users on a qualitative level to understand what they want and need from your project.
  2. Define: Based on the input of your users, define the problem you want to solve. In many cases, this won’t be the problem your agency leader identified when they handed the project to you. However, the user-driven problem is the one you must tackle for project success.
  3. Ideate: More commonly known as brainstorming, this step involves collaborating with as many groups as possible in order to come up with creative solutions to your problems.
  4. Prototype: In HCD, you don’t wait until everything is perfect (which is what government normally does). Instead, you move fast to reach a minimum viable product. Then, you release that product into the hands of your users.
  5. Test: As soon as your first iteration is released, start the loop of testing the product, asking for feedback, and creating new prototypes.

These steps are the heart of design thinking. As Wade explained, “Often times the most innovative element of what [design thinking project leader] do is not the ideas they generate but the process by which they create those solutions.”

Getting Started

But before you start moving through these steps, you’ll need a few more resources like understanding, space, and institutional support. Krieger and Wade explained how to get those assets and enable your journey to design thinking.

Understanding: OPM’s Innovation Lab offers formal HCD training every month, which is available free to all federal employees. You can also learn by doing, as long as you have a knowledgeable partner to lead the way. For that reason, the Lab also collaborates with federal agencies to conduct integrated design projects that teach the process while also producing results.

In addition to having formal teachers, Krieger also recommends doing some digging on your own. There are a ton of tools and technologies that support and explain design projects, and many of them are available online for free.

Finally, take a look at other successful design thinking projects to learn how they were executed and what results they yielded. Wade said her Innovation Lab is happy to provide case studies. Krieger also mentioned a number of his department’s projects, such as rethinking how the US builds military partnerships and redesigning NATO to confront 21st century threats, which others can use as examples for success.

Space: Design thinking is a collaborative process that takes places outside of the normal, bureaucratic workflow of government. Therefore, Wade and Krieger argued that we also need a space that is separate from the government halls; one that allows project teams to truly collaborate in real-time across a variety of mediums.

Both the Innovation Lab and Strategy Lab have such spaces and both had more humble beginning – one starting in a sub-basement and the other in a forgotten cubeland. However, by breaking down a few walls and writing a few more, they were able to create such spaces with few resources. “You just have to get a little creative,” said Krieger.

Institutional Support: Perhaps the greatest obstacle to integrating design thinking into your organization is cultural resistance. Krieger asserted that leadership support is the vital ingredient to design thinking. Unfortunately, in government, embracing the risk that comes with rapid prototyping and iteration can be a hard sell.

To gain buy-in, Wade suggested reframing that risk of failure. She suggested focusing on what a testing environment can provide and pointing to real examples of how design thinking has been used to produce awesome results. To really highlight those examples, Krieger proposed hosting a “failathon” where external design project leaders explain how they used their failures to ultimately achieve positive results. This exercise, even if it’s executed on a small scale, introduces leaders to generative failure in a tangible way.

Of course, there is a lot more to design thinking than these definitions, methods, and resources. However, Wade and Krieger hope their advice and experiences will motivate other feds to learn more about why and how design thinking can lead to more innovative government.

From July 20th – 21st we’ll be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Follow along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

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