How can you go from being a process thinker to a design thinker?

This past weekend, I came across a blog post I wrote in 2014. The post was in response to a New York Times op-ed article, “Creativity vs. Quants”. The article took aim at the “quants” for believing that everything could be boiled down into an analytical formula, and highlighted the need for real creativity to solve the world’s toughest problems. Looking back on it, I clearly see this article was the beginning of my journey from being a “process-thinker” who focused on business process management (BPM) to becoming a “design-thinker” who focused on continuous learning on innovation.

I’ve seen many of our clients, especially professionals with process improvement and Six Sigma backgrounds, go through the same journey. They struggle to embrace the innovator’s mindset and open up to creativity and learning. That’s why I wanted to share the three steps that were critical in my journey to becoming a design thinker:

  • Step 1: Accept that failure equals learning. When I started applying design thinking, I discovered that failure is the fastest path to learning. Accepting failure can be hard if you come from a process, Lean, or Six Sigma background, where failure is bad. When you switch to being a design thinker, you start pushing boundaries as you try to learn as fast as possible. Pushing boundaries means taking risks and breaking things. In fact, that’s the point — to fail fast and learn. You might understand theoretically that failure is necessary, but it’s different to actually feel okay about failing. That’s why I encourage you to embrace failure, with the knowledge that failure is the accelerated path to learning about an idea or solution. I love this video Michael Jordan shot with Nike that sums up the connection between failure and success: Who knew Michael Jordan was a design thinker? Michael Jordan, an all-time-record-scoring, championship-winning player, is saying the only way he’s been successful is through his failures. If that’s not a clarion call for you to get out of your comfort zone when it comes to innovation, I don’t know what is!
  • Step 2: Honor the creative struggle. Honoring the creative struggle is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable with being creative. This is important for you as an individual innovator. It’s even more important for you as an innovation leader facilitating change in your organization. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to have the answer to every question. But another facilitator from Treehouse Design taught me that giving people space to struggle allows them to come up with new ideas and also builds the muscle needed for ideation. As the facilitator or leader, you might have the answer, but letting your team struggle a little with the creative process is the best way to help them learn and understand firsthand what it means to be creative. So, get comfortable with your own creative struggle, but make sure you also honor your team’s creative struggle. Help them learn how to apply creativity through the discomfort.
  • Step 3: Adopt design thinking as a lifestyle. Things absolutely took off for me when I started looking at all of my problems through the lens of design thinking. Instead of thinking “Let me go and use the design thinking toolkit” when I saw a problem, I began to intuitively frame problems from a “how might we” perspective. For example, during the middle of the pandemic, most restaurants were closed, but my family still wanted the experience of eating restaurant-quality food. So one of the rapid experiments we tried was Blue Apron. We loved it. In fact, the food and the experience rivaled the restaurants we’d been going to before coronavirus. Now design thinking has become my M.O. for life. I ask myself, how do I design life experiences? How do I find new solutions, whether that’s personally, professionally, or working on a team? Don’t treat design thinking as just a tool in your toolkit. Embrace it as a new way to operate.

Making the commitment to become a design-thinker is a fundamental shift in how you solve problems. It changes how you look at the world. If you’re on a journey from process-thinking to design-thinking, I recommend taking time to start practicing each of the steps I took on my journey. Taking these steps will help you feel more confident to abandon the traditional process thinking mindset that underpins how you’ve operated in the past. I believe design thinking is an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s hard to just put a little foot into it without putting your whole body in. So dive in and start swimming!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to send me your questions and thoughts about design thinking. I’d love to hear what’s inspiring you lately. Also, be sure to check out our design thinking and innovation resources, outlined below.

Innovation eXcelerator Coaching Program

If you’re a leader trying to make the shift into being a design thinker, be sure to apply to our Innovation eXcelerator Coaching Program. I designed this program specifically for leaders who’ve been introduced to design thinking, but who want to take it to another level. It’s a great way to build and execute your innovation playbook, using design thinking as the core.

For the upcoming summer session of the coaching program, we’ve added a focus on low-code prototyping. Not many people are talking about this essential innovation tool. Our last blog post was about how design thinking and low code go together like peanut butter and chocolate, so check that out if you want to learn more.

5-Day Innovation Challenge

If you’re looking for a fast way to level up your innovation game, you may be interested in our 5-Day Innovation Challenge. Sign up to receive free innovation leadership coaching challenges every day for a week.