October 22, 2021

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How a Co-Design Approach Unveils New Solutions and Brings Them to Life


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I have been a believer in design approaches since the buzzword “design thinking” came into being. As a program manager at IDEO, I built on the strong impact human-centered design has on corporate strategies and their market success. We were observing users in their environments, recorded the observations and shared them with the C-Suite.

The phrase “Good design is good business” evolved into user-centered design as a driver for market success. However, as long as it is us designing for others, we are also the limit.

Concept evaluations

Whether we build new concepts or re-evaluate existing concepts, we can extend our spectrum if we open the pool of knowledge, experiences and perspectives by involving a heterogeneous group of people in our work. We set up interactions with individuals that represent target groups, on-site, remotely or through scouts, as well as within our organizations. These open conversations are not interviews. We want to get under the skin and learn what people really think and do. We also build on the imagined solutions they share with us. Here, it is not the number of interactions with people that counts, but the intensity.

To involve the input of users, stakeholders and coworkers need to create collaborative spaces to generate contributions. By elaborating on the received input and scaling it feasibly, we might see room for improvements that we did not consider beforehand: new constellations of existing functionalities, new growth potentials and possible integrations in related and correlated networks and systems.

Related: Creative Problem-Solving Strategies to Test Your Business Idea 

Strategy development

The reasons for a new concept, or the redesign of an existing concept, are at the heart of the design process as commonly practiced in consulting firms and design thinking departments. However, design methods and approaches should have a key role in strategizing paths towards implementation and building on the precious inputs gathered. By evolving strategies to bring a concept to life with a design approach, we can make sure that we keep those values and satisfy the purpose of a project. Layered visualizations of complex systems, models and scenarios serve to communicate efficiently to teams, stakeholders, leadership and investors.

To respond to the complexity of a project, we should see how parts and functions of the overall system relate and coincide. We cannot test and evolve the whole body, but we should find key aspects that help us to understand how the leanings might impact other aspects and the whole structure. This way, we can make the impact of a complex structure predictable. It is important to honor the details and stay away from assumptions. We should contrast any input or feedback we receive, people and target groups and even the area we are addressing. When working on organizational design projects and implementations, an efficient strategy is to let a team of a department design for another department, then themselves. By changing roles, they learn what needs the other side wants to see implemented as well as constraints and new perspectives.

Strategy development looks at competitor analysis, function trees, roadmaps, development matrix, risk analysis and exit strategies. With the design approach, these modules evolve around human considerations, values and expectations.

Related: Design Thinking Is Not A Process, It’s A Mindset

Not too small and not too big

The above can be practiced not only in large consulting programs, but also in small in-house teams. Leaders at various levels can infuse techniques and approaches in their respective teams at all scales and create a shared innovation culture as well as efficient, engaging ways to collaborate in their organization. The “how-to” and the understanding of the nuances requires coaching, a tailored strategy and progress supervision. To innovate or evolve from the inside out is by far more effective than external project suggestions or external innovation hubs of bigger corporations. “Inside out” works for any scale, and any business that wants to evolve sustainably needs to change or address new challenges.

To design the way we evaluate concepts and purpose is crucial for startups in all phases. Many of them fail when new stakeholders move in, and former values and goals get disrupted by different ambitions and approaches. In established organizational structures, it is crucial to see where the roadblocks for change processes are. Innovation competencies should be placed at the intersections of the various departments that take ownership and leadership. They should function as a network of ambassadors of the various units, creating a dynamic balance of overall framework and individual interpretations or specific applications.

How can we bring all these perspectives together, connect and engage? The last year has been a great experiment in online collaboration, which can boost the coaching, implementing and monitoring of all the above. Having mentored students at the bachelor and master’s level, as well as executives in startups and legacy industries, I can see that anyone can assimilate and practice strategic design interventions. 

It is not the visualization skills that are a prerequisite to apply design processes, but an open mind, analytical and systemic thinking. The people that I mentor apply what we elaborated together, infuse the process in their work and engage people around them. It creates a healthy work culture, engaged collaborations and successful outcomes.

Related: Why Design Thinking Won’t Solve All Your Innovation Problems



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