Innovation in the Social Sector
Design thinking is one way to reframe problems, ideate solutions, and iterate toward better answers. It helps solve wicked problems. Those are the type that are especially insidious and difficult.
In a new book by Jeanne Liedtka, Daisy Azer, and Randy Salzman, Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector, the authors take on the challenge of applying design thinking to the social sector. The principles apply to all organizations and may help you reach a breakthrough in your organization. I recently spoke with Randy Salzman about their research. Randy is a journalist and former communications professor. His work has been published in over one hundred magazines, journals, and newspapers, from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to Mother Jones, Bicycling, and Style.
Practice Design Thinking
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a modern version of what was once common, a method of addressing and solving problems outside of normal professional siloes. After about 500 years of ever-greater specialization, society is recognizing that wicked problems lie between the professions, between those siloes, and that most “answers” require a grasp of human behavior and a willingness to deeply understand the entire problem, not just “my” professional aspect of it. Design thinking, often called human-centered design, asks us to explore deeply, empathize continually, ideate rapidly, prototype simply and iterate constantly in order to address the problems that bedevil us. Unlike, for example, LEAN and most analytical methods of addressing problems, design thinking seeks to hold problem-solvers in the question space, rather than rapidly jumping to an answer as most Type A personalities – who corporate leaders tend to be — do. Reframing the question, exploring it deeply—and especially building solid empathy with users and other stakeholders—allows design thinkers to find unarticulated needs and desires and build solutions—tapping into unintentionally hidden aspects of human behavior. In today’s “quantitative” planning world, design thinking seeks to return to “qualitative” understanding of both bigger, and littler, picture issues.
It is being used today all over the world in a variety of very different organizations. Would you give us a few examples?
While many know of the success of Intuit, 3M, Proctor and Gamble and other major corporations in producing new products and services via design thinking approaches, less is known about the problem-solving methodology’s work outside of product development, and in social sector and government organizations. Today, many U.S. government bureaucracies – from Health and Human Services, the VA, even the armed forces – are today seeking to understand the people they serve at a much deeper level than treating people as numbers using a quantitative statistical approach. Non-profits, hospitals, and educational institutions are also adapting their thinking towards design-thinking’s “possibility first, constraints later” approach to problem solving. For instance, The Kingwood Trust in the United Kingdom is using design thinking to sense and adapt to the needs of autistic adults who cannot use written or oral language to even express their likes or dislikes, and involving them in the design of their living spaces. The Community Transportation Association of America is using it to build local capacity to solve the work-transport needs of lower income employees. Monash University Hospital in Australia has completed a dozen design thinking projects and are presently engaged in solving the truly “wicked” problem of how medical providers can deliver and be compensated for wellness instead of for providing interventions. All these stories are in our book, Design Thinking for the Greater Good: Innovation in the Social Sector. But the stories are too many to fit into any book. We only touched on the New Zealand government’s culture-wide tipping to design thinking. Most governmental ministries in that Pacific nation have a design-thinking shop aimed at exploring deeply and empathizing continually with the stakeholders they serve.
How is innovation shifting?
We like to talk in terms of a shift from “Innovation I” to “Innovation II” and liken to this shift to the one that occurred in quality, post WWWII. In the same way that quality was originally the realm of specialists and then gradually (facilitated by TQM) spread to the point where, today, quality is everyone’s job up and down the organization, innovation is increasingly seen as belonging to those outside of research & development and senior executives. For organizations to adapt and thrive in today’s climate of political and economic uncertainty and challenge, we submit that all staffers, all employees, need the training and authority to innovate. It must become a core organizational capability. In this environment of broadened responsibility for finding new ways to create value for stakeholders, design thinking can do for innovation what TQM did for quality – help us to teach, scale and democratize it.
Certainly, possibilities for innovation are accelerating for a variety of technological reasons, from big data to computing capacities. There has been less attention to the human dimension, to the awareness that flawed human beings do not behave like the so-called “rational consumers” the quantitative planning world was based on. As the authors of Nudge put it, man is not “homo economous” but “homo sapiens,” and until thinkers began to understand that most of us act without thinking – rationally or otherwise – very little qualitative understanding of human behavior was considered by “garage” and other technological innovators. Now—in what some are calling the “Smart Machine Age”—there is an awareness that every idea and every concept needs accompaniment from a social technology which aids in its spread. We think of design thinking as a social technology for change. As more and more business, governments, organizations recognize that a qualitative understanding of their stakeholders is needed, design thinking opens up a new kind of conversation that creates space for innovation to birth and blossom.