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Design Thinking and the Power of Collective Intelligence

by: by: The CI&T Team

Ideating using a design thinking session with post its and images on a board.

Posted on Dec 5, 2018

Two heads are better than one. We learned this in grade school, and we see it among the world’s top innovators such as Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Apple’s Steve Jobs and “the Woz”, and Netflix’s Reed Hasting and Marc Randolph. With the marketplace changing at a breakneck pace, harnessing the power of collective intelligence to continually innovate is a necessity. But how do you elevate a garden-variety brainstorming session to a company-wide framework for delivering great ideas to your customers? Try design thinking.

Exploring ideas in a vacuum, divorced from the realities of the end user, is all too common. But Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb and proponent of design thinking, remarked: "I'm not sure how useful data is if you don't have meaningful scale to test it against. It may be misleading. The way that we do things is that if we have an idea for something, we now kind of build it into the culture of this idea that it is okay to do something that doesn't scale. You go be a pirate, venture into the world and get a little test nugget, and come back and tell us the story that you found."

The case for design thinking

At its core, design thinking is a human-centered approach to creating new products and services that was popularized for businesses by the design and consulting firm IDEO. The underlying premise is that you have to anticipate and witness how your customers interact with your product in order to design something of value. Further, the process of observing customer interactions in real life gives your company a mental framework and processes for handling complex problems.

On first blush, this sounds glaringly obvious. But you would be surprised how often the internal management point of view is prioritized over that of the customers. An unintended consequence of allowing internal politics to usurp the wants and needs of your customers is turf war. In other words, who decides which digital products will reach your customer? The answer is whichever department yells the loudest.

This has been the typical approach of corporations over the last century. However, we no longer have a “unilateral” business world where large enterprises hold sway over their customers. Today, with the growing power of social media, corporations no longer control the message or conversation. And these empowered consumers now have more options than ever before for expressing dissatisfaction with your product and finding alternatives.

Creating a design thinking framework

To integrate design thinking into your business processes and strategies, there are a number of options at your disposal. For example, try creating customer personas as an initial starting point. This helps inform the process by thinking about who your customer is, while engendering empathy. Persona development is an effective way of helping build consensus around the problem you are trying to solve. This also helps mitigate the risk of internal turf wars. After all, it is very unlikely that anyone within your organization—regardless of seniority or title—has all the answers. An environment that reduces internal friction enables you to tap into your organization’s collective brilliance.

Once you are able to empathize with your customers and understand their needs, you can enter the ideation phase. It is important that teams have the freedom to explore different ideas. And that is why we always encourage companies to create a safe place where teams can diverge and converge around their varying ideas.

Design sprints can be particularly useful in facilitating a healthy exchange of ideas. During design sprints, for example, use Post-it Notes to put everyone’s ideas in one place for all to see. This helps maintain anonymity while providing an opportunity for everyone to be heard. Just imagine if the best ideas for digital innovation happen to come from an intern, an accountant, or some unexpected quarter. In a traditional business model, these voices would never be heard—and you sacrifice your team’s collective learning experience.

Case study: The bank with a plan...or so it thought

One large bank hired CI&T to look at how to improve its performance and internal results. The bank was planning to grow 20%.  But as the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns famously wrote, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

To stay focused, our journey began by narrowing on one central question: What’s the strategy for winning customers? As it turned out, there wasn’t nearly enough thought put into what the customer wants.

Our solution was to think about what the customer needs, and then marry that to the bank’s growth strategy. In other words, they decided to elevate the customer voice. How did customers engage with the bank’s app, for example? Were the features being deployed really valuable to the end users?

Through this process, the bank’s teams completely reorganized themselves to better align with the customer journey, personas and values. The results were amazing.

An idea whose time has come

We live in an age where understanding the customer is key. Perhaps, even more important is the seemingly infinite treasure trove of customer insights at our disposal But too often we struggle with figuring out how best to leverage this data. The good news is that you do not have to go it alone. The time has come to harness the collective intelligence of your organization to drive value for your customers and business.