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Design thinking and the new language of leadership

5 min read


In September, a team from a Fortune 500 consumer products company shadowed a guest as he checked into a hotel. The guest — a frequent business traveler whom we’ll call Clay — put his key card into the hotel room door and walked in. Clay knew he was being followed; the products company paid him to participate in a research program.

After he was shadowed, Clay shared personal details with the company, ranging from how he handles his shaving gear (“I leave it on a washcloth in a nicer hotel, but I keep it hidden in my shaving kit if I’m not so sure”) to his preferred spot for his suitcase (“on a hard surface, never on the floor”). He also told the company his routine for when he first walks into the room (“I breathe deeply to smell that the room was cleaned — but not some perfume-y smell that that feels like they’re trying to hide something”). As a final part of the research process, he looked at a storyboard for a new concept in hygienic rooms and added his input.

While these methods of research may appear foreign, they are rapidly becoming part of the new language of leadership:

  • Journey mapping
  • Visualization
  • Co-creation

But how did these tenets of design thinking end up in the leadership dictionary? First, leadership in this stubborn economy must be focused on growth, and design thinking is a proven approach to growth. Second, leadership has become vastly more collaborative. So why not turn to tools that enroll and inspire teams to bring all their gifts to the collaboration process?

Here is more about the three design-thinking tools that leaders can add to their repertoire to help build and guide growth for their companies:

Journey mapping is a way to walk in your customer’s shoes, to see the world from their perspective, and is the most fundamental way in which the design process differs from an analytic process. Rather than breaking things down and tweaking the trouble spot, design thinking seeks to build up something new while framing it in a holistic context.

To map Clay’s journey, for example, the team plotted the high and low points throughout the business day — even the parts that had nothing to do with the hotel. We might be thinking, “He wants it to be home away from home.” But what cues is he getting about home? He’s in a suit, he has a suitcase, he’s in a rented car. In that context, we shouldn’t be surprised that Clay didn’t want the room to smell like home. He knows he’s traveling for business, and he wants extra assurance that the room is clean.

Once you’ve mapped the customer’s journey, leaders become problem-solvers, immediately seeing new possibilities. The problem is: Will the customer see them the same way?

To help solve this, leaders can implement Visualization — a tool to create clarity and transparency for collaborative work. Dave Jarrett, a senior partner at the consulting firm Crowe Horwath, knows all about the visualization challenge: “Our history before was: we got a great idea, we built it, and then we went to the market and tried to sell it. And you know what happens then — you get a lot of false starts.”

Some of those false starts, Jarrett notes, looked like “a $25,000 software prototype with no client input.” To cross this chasm, he led his colleagues to try visualizing their approaches by storyboarding. For example, to improve inventory management for a car dealership, one of his teams created a simple cartoon of two cars talking about how long they expected to be on the lot. At the other end of the spectrum, Starwood’s Aloft team visualized the room design in the online virtual world “Second Life.”

Visualizing an alternative is only half the battle, of course. Jarrett and his partners take their storyboards out to their market for Co-creation: a tool that lets the market tell companies which solution works best. Co-creation is used to engage customers directly in “playing with the future” so we can discover what will truly meet their unarticulated needs. That’s how the Aloft team used “Second Life,” allowing avatars to stay and share suggestions.

Today’s leaders cannot be afraid to use design techniques to help guide and build growth for their companies. These three tools will do more than just help you avoid costly missteps. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, we believe they will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between you and design thinking.

Tim Ogilvie is CEO of innovation-strategy consultancy Peer Insight and co-author with Jeanne Liedtka of “Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers,” published in 2011 by Columbia University Press. Ogilvie’s next book, “Communicating for Growth: The 10 Conversations That Ignite Successful Innovation Teams,” is due out in 2013. Some anecdotes in this column were based on research Ogilvie conducted in 2011.