5 design considerations for your design thinking workshop

The most productive ideation workshops, and those with the best customer experience, are those that have a unique DNA comprised of strategy, people, process, technology and which have been refined and optimized over years of experience.

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According to Forrester:

Design thinking is a creative problem-solving — and opportunity-finding — mindset and methodology with a bias toward action that puts the emphasis on empathizing with the customer, clearly defining the problem, collaboratively ideating solutions, and then prototyping and testing those solutions.”

Design thinking is an overall approach that puts the focus on the customer and covers a full range of disciplines and process steps across empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping and testing. As you think about how to infuse the design thinking mindset into your corporate innovation program, it can be useful to develop a set of design thinking considerations specifically for this middle-discipline of ideation.

The goal is to ensure your innovation workshops and ideation sessions fully leverage design thinking approaches and help to fully involve the customer along with your cross-functional teams at every step of the journey. Working together, the group can collaboratively capture and understand business challenges and market opportunities, determine a long-list of corresponding ideas and actionable solution opportunities, prioritize these ideas down to a short-list of the most promising candidates, and then co-define and co-design solutions which can later be prototyped and tested.

If you think about it from a process perspective, design thinking is very much like the traditional innovation pipeline, developing raw ideas into tangible business solutions, but with customer-centricity – and ideally customer-involvement - incorporated throughout.

To help with your planning, here’s 5 considerations which may be useful when designing your design thinking workshop:

1. Design thinking provides guiding principles not the process

Firstly, it’s important to remember that design thinking is an approach, but does not define the tools, techniques or target outcomes for your ideation sessions. It adds elements of customer-centricity, creative experimentation, multi-functional collaboration and rapid iteration, but does not specify the overall process or the software that may be involved.

You can think of it more as a set of guiding principles both within your ideation sessions and for connecting the dots both upstream in your process in terms of customer empathy and problem definition as well as downstream in terms of prototyping and testing.

It can provide a common framework that can help to ensure customer-obsession throughout the ideation, design and development journey and help pivot the thinking from an “inside-out” R&D mindset to an “outside-in” customer-centric mindset.

2. Align the precise type and scope of the ideation workshop to your business objectives

Based on your business objectives, there’s a variety of ideation workshops that may fit your needs. If you’re early in the overall ideation process, you may want to capture customer challenges and market opportunities. Later on, you may want to capture a long-list of actionable, implementable project ideas from the group and quickly get to a prioritized short list. Even further along, you may want to get to a set of desirable designs, features and functions for one or more specific solutions.

The key is to think about where you are in the innovation pipeline and what kind of workshop or workshops will help get you to the next stage. Do you want to capture a) business challenges, b) a long list of ideas and prioritized short list, or c) specific solution requirements, designs, features and functions? Or perhaps all of the above?

It’s also vital to set the correct scope for each session in terms of the key focus areas and what kinds of ideas you’re after. For example, are you interested in purely technology-related ideas or are you open to business-, process- and technology-related ideas? Are you interested in tactical, incremental ideas or are you interested in strategic, disruptive ideas, or both?

Once you have a handle on the types of workshop you wish to conduct, and the scope of these workshops in terms of the types of ideas you’re after, it will be far easier to communicate this to your target audience and stakeholders. This can be a great way to set expectations and get everyone on the same page ahead of your session.

3. Define clear roles for participants and align to the workshop’s key focus areas

With the workshop type and scope defined by a top-level goals and objectives statement and a set of six to eight key focus areas or sub-topics, you can now use these key focus areas to select the most suitable subject matter experts to attend the session from both your employee and customer groups.

Workshop facilitators don’t need to be subject matter experts on the workshop topics themselves but should be well-versed in facilitating these types of sessions and ideally have tens (or even hundreds) of such workshops under their belt. They should be responsible for the entire end-to-end process including the pre-work and post-work and be on point for managing the strategic outcomes from the workshop.

When selecting workshop attendees, aim for a cross-functional team that can bring insights from a diverse variety of perspectives and backgrounds. A valuable side-benefit of these types of workshops is that they’re excellent at helping to drive consensus among a diverse group and can be highly valuable in gaining organizational alignment internally as well as in conjunction with customers and partners.

4. Ensure the process is highly-repeatable for quality, yet highly-configurable for flexibility

For quality and consistency, it’s important that the innovation workshop process is highly-repeatable and standardized. To meet the needs of each specific client or session, it’s also important to have a workshop process that’s highly-configurable and can be tailored down to the level of each specific session.

To accomplish this, it can be useful to think of the workshop as a sequence of modular steps which can be coupled as loosely or tightly as needed. For example, techniques for capturing business requirements, identifying, discussing and prioritizing ideas, and capturing solution features and functions can all be self-standing, and coupled together as needed, based on the nature and duration of the workshop.

The key is to have robust processes and templates and to know the timing for each process step based on the number of attendees and whether the session is being conducted in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid format.  

5. Make any software part of the process, not the process

When thinking about innovation workshops, ideation sessions and design-thinking sessions, one of the natural reactions is to jump immediately to the software selection. I’ve written previously about the importance of the software in the ideation process in “No more Post-It’s: The case for software in your digital innovation sessions”.

While software is a powerful enabler, I believe a world-class ideation session consists of equal parts people, process and technology and simplicity is key. The software should be almost invisible in its use and make it easy to log in, easy to enter ideas and easy to vote. With event-based sessions that can last from 2 hours to 2 days it’s important for the software to have a rapid learning curve and not require large amounts of upfront configuration or lengthy explanations during the workshop.

That’s why in many cases you need to look for a completely different type of software solution or module as opposed to the more full-featured enterprise innovation management platforms. This is something I term multi-modal ideation which can help to set the rhythm of innovation whereby you utilize one software package for ongoing enterprise-wide ideation processes and another package or module for event-based ideation. If you’re working with an enterprise innovation management vendor, be sure to find out what modules or functionality they have specifically for these lean, event-based sessions.

Finally, don’t over design think it

In closing, while design thinking principles can be a powerful way to ensure customer-obsession throughout the process, it’s important to not over-design-think it or to rely solely on a design thinking firm or innovation software firm for your end-to-end solution.

Counter-intuitively, not every process step needs to be design thinking nirvana. For example, a carefully positioned thirty-minute idea capture session – where individuals enter their ideas in their own time using their own laptops – can be a great way to capture a large number of ideas from the group, give everyone a voice, and lead to fruitful elevator pitches, group discussion and voting thereafter.

The most productive ideation workshops, and those with the best customer experience, are those that have a unique DNA comprised of strategy, people, process, technology and which have been refined and optimized over years of experience.

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