Why design thinking hasn’t saved your digital transformation – yet

Design thinking has been heralded by many as the key to making digital transformation more customer-focused and effective. Anecdotal evidence suggests that isn’t happening, however. Hear from experts involved in helping global organizations make the digital shift to find out why and what you can do to take advantage of this problem-solving tool.

Design thinking was supposed to the secret sauce for accelerating digital transformation. How has design thinking worked for you? Has it lived up to its promise? Are your digital transformation efforts more effective?

Accurate statistics on the successful use of design thinking in digital transformation are scarce. A McKinsey & Company report states that 70 percent of digital transformation efforts fail to achieve their desired results. Extrapolating from that dismal success rate, design thinking either hasn’t lived up to the hype or a significant number of organizations haven’t implemented this tool for improving the customer experience and connection.

So why wouldn’t an organization utilize an approach that promises to unleash innovation and drive business value? This is, after all, a seemingly straightforward idea. It turns out that, like many other solutions designed to deliver positive change, the marriage of design thinking and digital transformation is not an easy one.

I spoke with leaders in three companies that are on the front lines of helping organizations with their digital development efforts: Chris Averill of Globant; Aurimas Adomavicius of Devbridge Group; and Dean Pipes of TetraVX. I have no financial relationship with any of these companies, but I am interested in understanding the perspectives of people who see companies in many industries around the world working on digital transformation. The question asked to each of them is simple: “If design thinking is such a great idea for a successful digital transformation, why aren’t more companies effectively using it?” Here’s what I learned:

  • Design thinking takes time. Empathy with the customer experience, ideation, prototyping, testing, and revision require a time and resource commitment that can be at odds with a deadline-driven environment. Globant’s Chris Averill told me that it is common for digital transformation projects to appear as action items on the CIO’s agenda. The budgeting and approval processes are often tied to annual objectives, and decisions makers want to see a finite budget with clear deliverables and timetables. Aurimas Adomavicius echoed that sentiment, “The financial requirements of the business favor the traditional waterfall approach to digital projects. There is only a finite amount of room for discovery and iteration.”
  • Organizational silos limit collaboration. Design thinking requires true collaboration among all the stakeholders. TetraVX’s Dean Pipes says that the empathy and understanding that organization’s want for the customers doesn’t always extend to the colleagues within the organization. A rigid organizational structure or project ownership mentality can cause people to undervalue the role that everyone must play to deliver a transformational product or service. There is a difference between cooperation and collaboration that must be acknowledged. Cooperation means that I help you when you ask. Collaboration means that I understand and appreciate others’ role to the point of actively looking at ways to involve them in the development process.
  • We’re doing okay compared to our benchmarks. Globant’s Chris Averill has noticed that companies are more open to experimenting with design thinking when things aren’t going well or their traditional ways of developing digital solutions appear to be working. Adhering to best practices and benchmarks can be a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, comparing yourself to others reveals opportunities for growth and improvement when you are behind. Unfortunately, it can also lull you into a false sense of security. The chances are good that the company destined to disrupt your business isn’t on your list for benchmarking. Comparing your operation to the best-in-class is a good thing. Actively seeking better practices—even when you are doing well—helps you stay at the forefront of relevance to your customer.
  • The culture gets in the way. There is a leadership mandate to embrace the collaboration, iterative development process, and customer focus that are the hallmark benefits of Design Thinking. There is even public acknowledgement that using this approach could lengthen the development process and ultimate adoption of a new application. That doesn’t mean, however, that your company is ready to operate differently. Aurimas Adomavicius says that many organizations fail to understand the culture shift required to make design thinking work. According to him, the initial challenge for the culture is shifting to a digital mindset. “Every company must learn to think and act like a tech company,” says Adomavicius. “Then it must make the next, and often more difficult shift, to develop a culture that is truly customer focused.”
  • We miss the connection between internal experience and external experience. The employee experience has an impact on transformation that drives the customer experience. Chris Averill says that his clients consistently find that making it easier for people to interact increases the ability to respond quicker. Unfortunately, as Dean Pipes says, “A lot of companies won’t allow themselves to consider employees as customers.” That’s unfortunate because, according to Pipes, encouraging people to connect internally removes friction and moves the focus to external customers.
  • We’re not as human-centric as we think. TetraVX’s Pipes strongly believes that successful digital transformation requires understanding people and their experience. Unfortunately, goals and incentives are structured around productivity, profitability, meeting deadlines, and cost control. It is easy to lose the human element when the person to whom you report, such as the COO or CFO, tends to manage by dashboard metrics associated with finances and efficiency.

Where to begin?

Despite the challenges, design thinking is has shown significant promise in making your transformation more successful. Here are three ways to start using or being more effective this important tool.

  1. Be the champion for shifting the culture. Your culture is defined by its habits, and CIOs can help change the culture by shifting how their work is done.  For instance, Devbridge Group’s Adomavicius suggests shifting to micro-funding to marry the need for financial and timeline controls with the roaming space that supports iteration. This shortens the distance between funding and product delivery. More important, it creates comfort for experimenting with new behaviors that can become part of the culture with each success.
  2. Bring the human-centric voice to the table. Dean Pipes of TetraVX asks a crucial question for making design thinking part of your digital transformation journey, “Who on the transformation or project team is responsible for looking at people first?” Too often, obtaining the voice of the customer is an activity performed externally to the development team. The choice to include that role as a fully contributing part of the team must be intentional.
  3. Connect the bottom and top of the organization. Averill told me that it is common for people at the bottom of the organizational chart to look up and see people who are closed to new ideas or problem-solving approaches. Likewise, he sees people at the top of the organization looking at new ideas and thinking, “That has potential, but our people just aren’t ready.”  One solution, he believes, is to actively look for, develop and empower talent that can help adapt and deliver a new way of doing things. It doesn’t have to begin with a massive transformation effort. Sometimes the best approach is to show results on smaller initiatives and then build on those successes.

The opportunity to do great things

Charles Lindbergh became the most famous person in the world when he successfully completed the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. He won a $25,000 prize that had gone unclaimed since 1916 and captured the world’s attention with stories of being cold, sleep deprived, hungry, and seeing ghosts on the trip. 

Lost—or at least downplayed—in the Lindbergh legacy is the design of the airplane.

The Spirit of St. Louis wasn’t simply a modified production aircraft. It was designed for the single purpose of making that thirty-three and one-half hour flight with fuel to spare. It carried an increased wingspan to accommodate extra fuel tanks. The plane was powered by an air-cooled engine estimated to perform for over 9,000 hours without any malfunction. A special mechanism was designed to automatically keep the engine parts greased during the entire flight. Every ounce of disposable weight was removed including the windshield, leather pilot’s seat and gauges. The main fuel tank was relocated to be in front of the pilot to provide extra safety even though it obstructed the pilot’s view.

All of these special design features were completed in a fully collaborative (and no doubt iterative) process with the end user, Charles Lindbergh. Looking back, you might say that the Spirit of St. Louis was design thinking that transformed aviation at its best. No wonder the team at Ryan Air committed countless hours of voluntary overtime to deliver their product on time.

Design thinking offers that same opportunity for developing digital tools that capture the imagination of developers, the business, and the end customer. It can be the catalyst for doing great things. It’s not there yet, but it can be if you overcome the challenges.

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